When Is a Number Just a Number?

The Goal-Setting Process: When Is a Number Just a Number?
By Angela Fieler

It’s October – the time of year when leaves start to change, people begin preparing for year-end holidays, and some organizations begin the budgeting and goal-setting process for the new year. That makes it a busy time for consultants.

I just got an email from a client asking me for goal-setting advice. The client provided me with their current score and asked me what their new goal should be. I know that they know that not just any number will do. But without any additional information, I might as well be spinning the wheel of fortune.

Here are some things I really need to know:

  • What makes up the “score” you gave me? Is it a mean score? A top box score? A percentile?
  • Is it derived from the Likert scale? If so, may I see the distribution of responses across the scale?
  • May I see a line graph of that measure over time, by month for at least the last 24 months? May I see the same graph by unit/division (whatever the next level down is from “organization overall?”
  • What have your goals been for each of the last two or three years? How did you derive those goals?
  • What changes have you put in place to achieve those goals?

How the client answers these questions determines the path I take in crafting my advice. If the client has provided me percentile data, I’m likely to get on my soapbox and give them all the reasons I believe this is a bad idea, especially if the range of scores between high and low percentiles is very small. This client gave me percentile score equivalents that showed the difference between the 10th percentile and the 95th percentile was 3.5 points! The client also told me that they set goals every year and they have no mechanism for setting the expectation that unit leaders make changes or for holding those leaders accountable

Let’s face it, this client isn’t unique. We work with many organizations where goal setting is a paperwork exercise. My consulting focuses on effective design and implementation of tests of change first and goal setting second. If the client has tried a few things and scores over time seem to be trending upward, even slightly, I’m going to dig further into the data. I want to look at scores over time by individual units. I’m looking for volume (which units have the biggest and smallest impact on the score), internal best practices, and what it would take in terms of response shifts to change the score. That’s the only way to provide meaning to the goals I would recommend. 

I used goals intentionally because it is my practice to help clients set thresholds, targets, and stretch goals. Every client I have coached on the goal-setting process has heard me say repeatedly that goal setting isn’t a math exercise and the number is not the thing. Numeric goals create opportunities to create a better customer experience, hone your leaders’ coaching skills, and inspire everyone in your organization to transform your culture. But, if you don’t understand the psychology of goal setting, the number is just a number and not much will change.

Want help in moving beyond choosing a goal number and truly focusing on transformational change? Contact Baird Group now for a personalized culture assessment and transformation plan. Or, schedule your complimentary 30-minute consultation here

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