Have Goals? Measuring Progress Gets You There Faster!

By
Beverly Jones


Updated Mon, Jan 27, 2014 12:39 pm

Do you have professional and other goals in mind for the year?  For the future? So what's your plan?

It can be motivating to have a broad, enticing vision, but it can also be daunting. Sometimes people put off their biggest objectives and most exciting projects because they don't even know where to begin.

To get started and keep moving toward your goals, think about ways to establish specific benchmarks and measure your progress. For example, if you propose to write a book, you might commit to writing a certain number of words each week or month.

Maybe you are one of those folks who have heard about the power of measurable goals more times than you can count. But you're still not convinced.  Maybe metrics strike you as time-consuming or boring, or you think some values can't be quantified? Before you give up on the idea of making your goals measurable, consider these points:

  • Measuring creates awareness.  If you regularly measure something, you tend to keep it in mind.  So if you're trying to develop a habit, coming up with and applying a metric will help you to keep on the path.   For example, research says that if you decide to eat less in order to lose pounds, you are more likely to stick to your diet if you regularly weigh yourself and chart your weight.   And it's the same for organizations.  Studies suggest that, in businesses, government units and non-profits, attention tends to focus on the things that get evaluated.
  • Quantity can lead to quality.  When you count positive steps, you are likely to take more of them.  And the more you practice an activity, the better you get at it.  One of the first in a series of books focused on the power of practice is Geoff Colvin's "Talent Is Overrated."  Colvin examined research about "what really separates world-class performers from everybody else."  He concluded that great performers — whether in music, sports or business — are the ones who practice intensely.  Quantity doesn't always lead to quality, but often the more times you do something, the more you learn.  And when learning is involved, quantity leads to quality. 
  • Measurement can foster self-control.  "If you can measure it, you can manage it."  That quote is often attributed to management guru Peter Drucker, but his take on measurement in the workplace was actually more nuanced.  He saw a danger that measurement "could be used to control people from the outside and above — that is, to dominate them."  He suggested that the better use of measurement is to "make self-control possible."  He thought metrics should be used by every manager "to appraise his own skill and performance and to work systematically on improving himself."
  • Measurement can replace micro-management.  As a coach, I've encountered many situations where managers want to delegate but can't seem to do it.  Sometimes they hover annoyingly over a project because they want a better sense of how it's going.  But when the manager and the project leader are able to come up with the right metrics, suddenly the problem disappears.  A good measurement and reporting system can create transparency.  Then it becomes easier both to solve problems and to recognize progress. And, when you begin to demonstrate your achievements, it's easier for your manager to let go.

At times we are slow to create a measurement system because we don't know what to measure.  It is not always easy to quantify the impact or value of your work, but the process of selecting metrics can contribute to your ultimate success.  Choosing your approach to keeping track requires you to ask important questions.  The first step may be to break a large goal into pieces.  Then you'll want to consider which factors actually matter.

Suppose your New Year's Resolution is to get to the office earlier.  You start to build a picture by recording your daily arrival times.   And then you begin to wonder: why is it harder to be prompt on some days than on others?  So you expand your log to record your bedtime, your hours of sleep and whether you lay out your next day's clothes before going to bed.  You notice the patterns and eventually you change your evening routine.  You start getting out of the house sooner, and your commitment to arrive at work earlier is reinforced by that ping of pride each morning when you record the time you hit your desk.

It can be useful to experiment a bit as you choose data to show how you're doing.  As you explore options, consider these three approaches to measuring progress toward your goals.

  • Measure progress toward actually completing the mission.  Some goals can be framed in numerical terms, which makes progress easy to chart directly.  Suppose, for example, that you want to raise your profile by energizing your blog.  It's a simple matter to set numerical targets, like the number of posts you intend to publish this year.
  • Count important activities.  Often major factors impacting completion of your mission are beyond your control.  So observe the things you can control.  Determine which activities are most likely to contribute to your success, and start measuring them.  For example, perhaps you are trying to attract new donors for your foundation, but economic trends may limit your success.  Get moving by identifying the most important fundraising steps toward your goal, like calling supporters and hosting events.  A direct measurement approach would count outputs from your work process, like the number of dollars raised per month.   But the measures that kick you into gear might be those that track your inputs to the process — your actions — like the number of people you call and the time you spend talking with prospects.
  • Create capacity.  Complex goals may require a staged approach to measurement.  Often you can't start racking up actual results until you put the tools, systems and resources in place.  If your goal requires something big, like creating a task force, map out key milestones, like recruiting the team.  Your first stage of evaluation will be to monitor completion of the capacity build-out.

Want to be more strategic as you set your goals?  From the archives, here's an ezine on thinking strategically as you set your goals.

Beverly Jones is an alum of Ohio University. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.

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