3 Steps to Setting Great Objectives in Your Business

Curt Fowler

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

So far in my review of Richard Rumelt's book, "Good Strategy / Bad Strategy", I have discussed the elements of good strategy. We've also discussed how failing to face your company's challenges and mistaking goals for strategy can lead to bad strategy.  In this post, I'll take a look at another indicator of bad strategy - bad strategic objectives.

Too many strategic objectives make for bad strategic objectives. As I mentioned in an earlier post, if you have more than 2 or 3 strategic objectives the likelihood of accomplishing any of those objectives decreases dramatically.

If you have ever shot skeet or even just watched it, you see how this works in practice. In skeet shooting, multiple targets can be launched at once. If the shooter attempts to look at more than one of the targets at the same time, he rarely hits any. A great shooter picks his first target, hits that target and then moves on to the next. We must do the same in our organizations. Pick the most important target, nail that target and then, and only then, move to the next.

One way I have seen companies fall into this trap is to assign 2 or 3 objectives to each "work team" and allow the company leader to belong to a team.

Here is the problem with this - just like the pack goes with the lead dog in a sled race, the company goes where the leader is headed.  If the leader is focused on new markets, his focus, and therefore the focus of the entire organization will drift from the more mundane, but necessary tasks on the team's plates to what the leader is focused on.  The solution to this problem is to have the leader of the company not own any of the strategic objectives.  His job is to keep the team focused on meeting their objectives. Of the 2 to 3 objectives that are chosen, the leader cannot pick favorites and must be dedicated to helping all teams reach their objectives by the deadlines that are chosen.

It's also important to make sure that each "work team" knows which objective to work on first.  Running parallel tracks on multiple objectives is very tempting, but often leads to failure.  Remember, your people were very busy doing their jobs before you added these strategic objectives to their list of things to do.  Do you really think they can continue to perform their everyday tasks well while running 2 to 3 new strategic objectives?  In practice, they rarely can.

In summary, here are three steps to avoid setting bad strategic objectives:

  1. One Objective At A Time: Just like a great skeet shooter, pick your shot. Focus your teams on one objective at a time.  Avoid the temptation to multi-task.  Get one done and then move on to the next.

  2. Leader Only Supports: The leader's job is to do whatever it takes to support his teams in meeting the goals they are responsible for.  Stay away from focusing on your own pet projects.  Your team will focus on what you pay attention to.

  3. Reward. Celebrate. Go Again: Reward & celebrate when an objective is accomplished and then move on to the next task. A little motivation goes a long way.

Remember, good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes.

About Curt Fowler

Curt Fowler is the President and Founder of Fowler & Company, a business advisory firm founded to help its clients maximize the value of their organizations. Curt is a Certified Public Accountant and earned his Masters in Accountancy from the University of Georgia. He also earned an MBA in Strategy and Entrepreneurship from the Kellogg School at Northwestern. He has spent 20 years studying and learning from some of the best businesses in America including Verizon, Sara Lee, Cox Communications and many more.