How to Set Ambitious Yet Realistic Goals

Written By: Alison Green
September 10, 2015
3 min read

As a manager, you want your staff setting and working toward clear, concrete goals. After all, goals are how you can measure progress, hold people accountable, and drive real results. But some teams set goals that aren’t “real” – they’re so lofty that they’re unlikely to come to fruition, and because people sense that, they’re not taken seriously and don’t truly shape the course of people’s work (thus defeating the purpose of setting goals to begin with).

Setting ambitious goals is important. It’s one of the practices that separates high-performing teams that make dramatic progress from those that just go about the ordinary course of business. But to have real power and truly drive your team’s work, they also need to be realistic. Otherwise, they’ll represent wishful thinking instead of real commitment.

Here’s how you can ensure your team’s goals aren’t just pie in the sky.

1. Insist that goals have plans behind them.Goals with no plans behind them aren’t real goals – they’re more like hopes. For a goal to be real, your team needs to have some idea of how they’ll reach it – what tactics you’ll use, and what a realistic path to success will look like. Tactics may end up changing, of course – but without any road map at all, you can’t reasonably have an idea of whether a goal is achievable or not.

2. Create short-term milestones. If you’re setting annual goals, you should also create shorter-term milestones for interim progress (monthly, quarterly, or whatever time period makes sense for your context), so that you and your team will know throughout the year whether you’re on track to meet the goal or whether you need to course-correct.

3. Consider what else will be going on in the same time period. A goal to increase your media coverage by 50% in a year might be perfectly realistic if you have the right plan attached to it – but it would probably be unrealistic if you also have multiple other stretch goals during that time that will be taking up most of your staff’s focus, plus a new media database being implemented that will slow your work during the transition. You can’t consider goals in a vacuum; consider them relative to other goals and any conditions that may impact people’s work.

4. Make sure your goal-setting is a discussion, not an announcement. As a manager, you could just announce to your team members what goals they’ll be responsible for meeting. But you’re far more likely to come up with the right goals – with the right targets and measures – and have buy-in from your staff (the people who, after all, will be the ones who need to carry them out) if they’re part of the conversation before goals are finalized. Your staff should have input and perspectives that shouldn’t be ignored as you’re setting goals, especially if you want those goals to be realistic. Plus, part of the value of a strong goal-setting process is that the discussion that goes into it can help bring different assumptions and perspectives to the surface; that discussion should ultimately result in better alignment about priorities, strategies, and expectations than you may have had earlier.

Written By: Alison Green
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.