Two Reasons to Set Goals that are “In Service Of”

Right around the first of every year, we take a look at the workshops we provide and run them through a quick review.  How are they working? Are clients getting the value we expect?  Are there things we’ve learned that can help us improve them?  So last year we began refining a workshop we give on effective goal setting. We provide this workshop both to large and small companies that are looking to systematize their annual goal-setting cycles, and to do so in ways that are both simple and strategic.  (Many companies, it turns out, are anxious to improve this important annual function).

We revisited parts of the standard offering—our use of the SMART model, for example, along with our focus on dependencies and mutual relationships—and found that they still held up very well. Still, we felt that there was probably something we could add that would enrich the program.  Finally, Renee came up with an interesting question, one that stems from her experience as an executive coach.

“Shouldn’t a goal be ‘in service of’ something?” she asked.

We thought about it for a bit during one of our short hikes with our dogs (full disclosure: we consider these daily excursions work time since we do most of our best brainstorming under the trees), and came to the conclusion that she was right.  If someone has a goal but they don’t know what higher-level purpose it serves, then why have it at all?

This idea of “in service of” is both simple and powerful. It’s about making sure that what you’re committing to is valuable to what others are looking to accomplish as well.  It means that the most important things we do are part of a system, and that the system is all the richer for us recognizing and enhancing that connection.

We spent some time thinking about what does and doesn’t work in the goal-setting experiences we had been through in our own careers, and realized that there were two specific areas in which goal-setting often fell short, and where this concept of “in service of” could add rich new meaning to what has historically been a largely rote annual exercise:

  • Goals are too often viewed in isolation. It’s our belief that goals can never be fully achieved by one person working completely alone.  There are always some dependencies—what we call “mutual relationships” in our team-building workshops—and that recognizing and surfacing those dependencies leads to more efficient work done by more engaged employees.  By using the concept of “in service of,” we help people recognize to whom they are making commitments and, correlatively, those who are dependent on them for success.
  • Goals are only rarely aligned throughout the organization. Whether working with large companies or start-ups, a consistent pattern emerged in the way goals were developed.  Usually the senior leadership team would establish some corporate goals that they would then roll-out to the company, after which managers would work with individuals on setting personal goals.  Only sometimes did departments define equally detailed goals, and we almost never saw anyone take the time to line those goals up side by side to see if anyone’s individual or team goals would help the corporation achieve the higher-level goals.  We realized that asking the simple question—“What are these goals in service of?”—would be an incredibly powerful way to maintain vertical alignment of all the goals within an organization.

Here’s how it could work: Imagine that a company has set an annual goal to increase market share by, say, five percentage points.  The sales group would then know that they needed to increase their prospect pipeline by some percentage in order to close more business.  The customer service department might also want to increase customer satisfaction in order to reduce the number of customers leaving, a key factor in overall market share.  Both of these departmental efforts would be “in service of” that higher level goal—the increase in market share.

A corporation, of course, will have more than just a single goal, and the goals set throughout the organization are not all going to be in service of every one of those corporate goals.  But they don’t have to be. It’s enough to know that every goal is in service of at least one higher level goal somewhere in the company.  That “network” of goal connections is what helps to ensure focus and alignment.

So that’s what we did: we augmented our approach by always making sure our customers could answer Renee’s brilliant and simple question: “What are your goals in service of?”

So: what about you.  What are your goals?  And what are they “in service of?”

[We welcome any inquiries about our goal-setting workshops.  Please email for more information.]

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