August 22, 2014

Goal clarity looks simple, is simple, yet many teams get it wrong

If you don’t know where you are going you will end up someplace else  - Yogi Berra

A base line for team performance

Setting goals for teams is no different to setting them for an individual. The principles of the performance management cascade apply equally to a team setting. Teams by their nature are task orientated or more accurately stated, activity orientated. They want to do "things".

In the training room it has often been observed when presented with a simple task such as building a high stable structure with straws and paper clips that will survive a test of robustness, a team will jump straight in without first thinking about what needs to be achieved. They will start putting straws and paper clips together as they talk about what needs to happen. Some in the team will be working on the principle of stability, some on the principle of height and some on the test of robustness. They are not aligned, have not thought through the goal or goals, have no plan, have not considered the challenges in-depth and invariably realise that their structure will not meet the criteria when the time limit has expired.

One may suggest that what is described above is more a function of planning and evaluation. This is true to an extent but without clear goals there is nothing to plan and evaluate. In fact goal clarity is the base line for all team performance. Without a clear path of where we are going, why we are going there, how we will get there, when will we get there and what does getting there look like, all other aspects of team performance are inaccessible.

Effects of unclear goals

Without goal clarity:

  • the team roles cannot be determined;
  • the team structure (what skills are required) cannot be established;
  • planning and evaluation techniques cannot be appropriately selected;
  • an appropriate leadership style cannot be delivered;
  • communication and decision-making methods cannot be clarified and
  • individual performance and contribution cannot be assessed.

Goal clarity is not a 'one-off'. It is important to constantly clarify the goals of any team. It is not unusual to have a team claim goal clarity and then, when challenged individually on the goals of the team, members will express differing and even contradictory understanding of the goals. This can lead to wasted effort, duplication of task, incorrect prioritisation, some tasks not being performed at all and frustration and confusion. It is certainly not an environment where a team can be at its most effective.

Questions for team members

Goal clarity not only impacts all aspects of effectiveness, it provides the road map, the vision of what success looks like and is essential in uniting the team effort to the common goal. The team's goals process is in essence no different to an organisation's goals process or indeed the performance management process. It is however specific to the team and must be carried out as an independent exercise. These are the questions that must be answered and clearly understood by all team members:

  1. Why do we exist and what is our purpose? – The vision that emphasises the overall purpose and ethos of the team.
  2. What do we need to achieve in the immediate term? – The mission for the immediate future. Teams can have multiple projects or objectives at any one time. These need to be specified separately.
  3. When do we need to achieve this? - The deadline.
  4. Why do we need to achieve this? – The benefits, impact, importance and consequences of failure.
  5. What are the sub goals that need to be achieved? – The key milestones that inform the team of overall progress.
  6. Who or what is the end beneficiary of the goal(s)? – Ourselves, another department, the organisation overall, a customer, a combination of these.
  7. What does success look like and how will we know we are there? – Success establishes standards and provides the impetus and drive to complete.

Unless these questions are clearly answered and continuously reaffirmed, a team will be less than effective in terms of its capability.


Goal clarity looks simple and is simple. All it takes is reasoned thinking, equal engagement with the team members and continuous reaffirmation through communication. Furthermore, it will not take up a whole lot of time and will help deliver the team to where it is destined to be… and not somewhere else!

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