If you’re like the rest of us, then your dreams and ambitions probably didn’t survive 2020 intact. Maybe you’ve deferred your goals, or had to abandon some of them altogether. Maybe you’re still pursuing your plans—but from a much more precarious position, with higher stakes and less support.
Whatever the case, it’s likely that you need to take a step back and give your plans some renewed attention. The worst thing anyone can do right now is barrel ahead, hoping their best-laid plans won’t be upended by new surprises in 2021. In this article, we’re going to help you get ahead of the curve by planning new goals—or recommitting to old ones. Most importantly, you’ll avoid reactive planning by projecting yourself 3 years, 1 year, and 3 months ahead.
3 Years Out: Your Vivid Vision
In his book, Vivid Vision, Cameron Herold offers this immutable rule: “Don’t worry about how it is going to happen, only that it’s going to happen.” None of us knows how anything is going to happen in 2021—only that new things must happen and that the world must change. We can follow Herold’s advice, leaning into the uncertainty and using it as an excuse to dream big.
Prime your mind by thinking over the following questions. Remember to relinquish all thought of how any of this might take place; think only of what you want to see in the next 3 years:
- WHAT do you see when you imagine 3 years into the future?
- WHO do you want to be there with you?
- WHEN do you want to achieve certain milestones?
- HOW do you want to achieve all this?
- WHY is this the image of success that comes to your mind?
Write It Down
Sharpen your pencil for this, because writing by hand will turn this into a powerful exercise. Free your mind from the day-to-day worries of running your business and allow yourself the freedom to concentrate and visualize the future, which will engage the problem-solving centers of your brain:
Imagine you’ve time-traveled to 2024. Imagine you’re filming every aspect of your life, planning to bring it back with you as a record; imagine your team, clients, affiliate relationships, and so on. Play this movie in your mind and ask yourself: what do the big picture and the details look like three years out?
Work through the above questions again, writing down thorough answers to each. Don’t worry about how you are going to achieve all this. Focus on describing what you see over the next 3 years. Use this checklist, if it helps you:
- What does the media write about you?
- What kind of comments are your employees making in the kitchen?
- What is the buzz about you in your community?
- What is your marketing like? Are you marketing your goods/ services globally now? What new media campaigns are you running?
- How is the company running day to day? Is it organized and running like a clock?
- What kind of stuff do you do every day? Are you focused on strategy, team building, customer relationships, etc.?
- What do the company’s financials reveal?
- How are your core values being realized among your team? This means your team culture, staff, marketing, sales, work-life balance, etc.?
- Do any of your thoughts feel bizarre, crazy, surprising or impossible? If so, that’s definitely a sign you should include it.
The vision you produced during this exercise should be the equivalent of a 4-5 page statement, written in the present tense, about where you see your company in three years. If you don’t have a good idea of where you want to be going, opportunities could pull you away from what you should be doing. When you’re clear on your direction, you’ll be able to say yes to the right opportunities and no to the wrong opportunities.
Most leaders have such a vision inside them, but they don’t communicate it clearly. You’ve taken your first steps towards getting that vision out of your own head and out into the world, where it can help your organization, your teams, and your family. Use this exercise as a prototype for building alignment within your company and planning out the next 12 months together. Get into the habit of dreaming up what you want to build, then put together the team and the resources to help you do it. Don’t worry yet about how; continue to focus on the what.
1 Year Out: Name Your Objectives
Have you ever driven through a canyon, or looked at the layers of rock that sometimes sit astride the highway? We don’t often consider how the terrain got that way, but literally millions of tons of explosives are used every year to blow up the earth and make room for roads. This isn’t done lightly, either: roads are built based on the destination in mind. Rocks and hills are sliced and exploded because it is the fastest, most cost-efficient way to get from Point A to Point B. Setting your destination first tells you how to build your road—and whether it needs to wind around that mountain in the way, or blow it sky-high.
The transition from 2020 to 2021 is going to be a mountain for most of us. Now that you’ve spent time visualizing a destination for 2024, it’s time to think of 3 to 5 Objectives that you want to achieve in the next year—3 to 5 ways you want to blow up the mountain.
Make firm declarations about your target goals, starting with the radically personal: “By 2022, I will have X, accomplishing Y and delivering X.” State your goals as if they’ve already happened, as though they’re a done deal. Doing this sets your brain into overdrive, planning and problem-solving to make your declarations a reality. We’ll offer some examples to get you started.
In 2021, I will . . .
- Improve my health by walking 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.
- Improve my listening skills by asking three questions in every conversation and assessing myself nightly.
- Improve my visibility by contributing meaningfully to ever meeting this year. I will do this by reviewing pre-meeting agenda and deciding where and when I will contribute. I will self-assess my contributions every 30 days.
- Improve my speaking and presentation skills by researching for 1 hour/day after being assigned a presentation and rehearsing my presentation out loud at least once before delivering it.
- Improve my emotional intelligence by asking questions whenever I sense myself becoming frustrated, angry, or nervous. I will use these questions to defuse tension in conflict.
- Attend 3 networking events every quarter with colleagues or friends in order to meet new people in a psychologically safe environment.
- Volunteer every two weeks in an area of expertise or interest to me.
- Improve my time management skills by creating to-do lists and measuring my work time.
- Wake up 1 minute earlier every morning until I am waking up at a goal time (e.g. 5:00 am).
- Read one book every two weeks.
Objectives and Key Results
Now you’ve got your goals in mind, but your work isn’t done yet. The whole problem with goals is that there is a mountain between setting them and achieving them. You’re likely already asking a mountain of questions, of yourself and your organization:
- How might we ensure that we build a roadmap that guarantees attainment of our goals?
- What do we need to do first?
- What resources do we need?
- What roadblocks might we encounter?
- What buy-in might we need from internal and external voices to accomplish our goals?
The likelihood of achieving your goals skyrockets when you break those goals into smaller components. In our business and executive coaching, we prefer to use the language of Objectives and Key Results—OKRs, for short—as a catch-all to name the key components of good goal-setting. OKRs are good tools for effective strategic planning because they help generate focus, forge alignment, and identify measurable results.
Objectives define scope and intention, as well as the specific time frame for achieving the goal. You want your objectives to be specific, concrete, and action-oriented, with a flair of inspiration: use descriptive adjectives to paint a picture of success that will motivate you and your crew.
Example Objective: Dynamically build our people department at work, defining roles and organizational flow while filling key open positions.
Key Results allow you to monitor the progress of your Objectives. Think of them as benchmarks, or rulers. Effective Key Results tell you how you will know when an objective has been accomplished. To create Key Results, brainstorm and identify the metrics, numbers, conversations, engagements, etc. that might help you monitor your progress.
Example Key Results (for the Objective above):
- Host a 2-hour meeting in which each team member clarifies and owns their roles.
- Ask Julie to draft up a visualization of departmental workflow and identify key gaps in that workflow.
- Complete the interview process for VP of Learning.
- Assimilate new VP into team culture using DiSC Work of Leaders and team engagements.
Make Your OKRs CLEAR
Once you’ve declared your goals for the year and phrased them as OKRs, it’s time to put your problem-solving energy to work by revising and clarifying your goals into achievable plans. To do this, make them CLEAR:
Collaborative. Goals should encourage people to work together collaboratively and in teams.
Limited. Goals should be limited in both scope and duration.
Emotional. Goals should make an emotional connection between your people and the organization or strategy, tapping into their energy and passion.
Appreciable. Large goals should be broken down into smaller goals so they can be accomplished more quickly and easily for long-term gain.
Refinable. Set goals with a headstrong and steadfast objective, but as new situations or information arise, give yourself permission to refine and modify your goals.
The Next 90 Days: FAST Execution
SMART goals—goals that are Specific, Measurable, Aggressive, Realistic and Timely—are great for personal goal-setting within tight timeframes when you’re looking for measurable results. But when it comes to determining and setting goals that will impact your whole organization, it’s important to maintain an amount of flexibility. The FAST framework is a great tool for taking your 1-year goals and executing on them within a tight quarterly period. FAST stands for:
Frequent discussion maintains focus and keeps your goals top-of-mind. Moreover, it helps you to keep track of progress and receive feedback on potential improvement opportunities. Those discussions also tell you whether resources and priorities need shuffling. Finally, frequent discussions drive engagement and help everyone understand where their work contributes to the organization’s overall success.
Ambitious goals trigger you to try harder. They should be more difficult but still possible to achieve, challenging the status quo of your performance (the opposite of “sandbagging” goals that feel good but are easy to achieve). Ambitious goals often require you to learn, seeking more innovative and creative ways to attain them. Be careful of the double-edge of ambition, though: exaggerated and unfeasible goals ultimately work against your sense of progress.
Specific, ambitious goals increase performance because they can be readily translated into concrete and tangible metrics, clarifying expectations and deliverables. The more specific they are, the easier it is to test and learn from them. Specificity enhances your agility, helping you adapt faster and make adequate course corrections.
Goals and progress should be visible and accessible to everybody involved. This helps to better align individual goals with your overall strategy; any unaligned goals can quickly be adjusted. Furthermore, when goals are transparent, people can see who is working on what and know who they can go to for advice or to learn more, discovering new opportunities for collaboration. You can do this through simple boards showing your goals on sticky notes, or through software and platforms like Smartsheets or Basecamp.
After 90 Days: Analyze Your Strategy
Have you ever spent 20 minutes writing a three-sentence email because you couldn’t avoid rephrasing it over and over again? “It’s good (even necessary) to edit your work,” writes Kesten Harris, “but there’s a huge problem with rapidly switching between writing mode and editing mode. Doing so means that you’re constantly switching between the creative and critical sides of your brain, respectively.”
The same logic can apply to long-ranging work projects as well as writing. While you’re executing, you should focus on executing—getting things done, gathering data, and pushing a project towards its end goal. It’s important, however, to build “editing time” into your schedule. “Editing” a project can take a number of forms, such as doing an agile retrospective or a “mid-project kick-off”.
At Leadership Reality, we find that the SCORE approach allows us to quickly assess our strategy on any given project, and we regularly SCORE our projects on a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis. As the name implies, it equips you with a checklist and a means to measure your approach. Checking your SCORE before and after taking action gives you a reliable, easy-to-remember process for continuous learning.
Take inventory of your available means for responding to opportunities and supporting your roadmap. Use these data to create a strengths inventory and a support/partner map.
- What are your existing capabilities and resources?
- What potentials for synergy exist?
- What services can you offer or call on from others?
- What supporting resources do you have available, or can you receive from others?
Define the content for the roadmap, and identify the internal project risks. Use these data to prioritize your roadmap and create an issues register.
- What ‘weaknesses’ are showing up in your strategy?
- What capabilities and resources do you still need?
- What are the issues you need to address, whether within the organization or in your relationships with partners, suppliers, stakeholders, etc?
- What skills are required and what is necessary for developing them?
Identify reasons for change in your strategy, the priorities for the roadmap, and external risks arising directly from those opportunities. Use these data to create strategy scenarios and a trade-off register.
- What opportunities are presenting themselves?
- What risks emerge that you can recast as opportunities?
- What are your options in relation to these opportunities and risks?
- How can you act on those options?
- How should you prioritize those options and actions?
Identify the business case for this project/strategy, and the external risks directly or indirectly impinging on your strategy and opportunities. Use these data to create a business case and develop risk management scenarios.
- What are the probable or emergent consequences of action or inaction here?
- What risks are entailed that can’t be (easily) controlled or recast as opportunities?
- What responses might you deal with from stakeholders? Customers, competitors, providers, partners?
- What regulations might you need to deal with? Are you up-to-date regarding potential legal ramifications of your strategy?
- What is the potential business value (gain or loss) from every individual risk?
Take the time to identify how your strategy might or might not impact other aspects of your operations. Use these data to assess project impact and integration.
- Is your strategy efficient? Is it maximizing your use of resources / minimizing waste?
- Is your strategy reliable? Is it predictable, consistent, and self-correcting?
- Is your strategy elegant? Does it provide clarity, simplicity, and consistency? Can it be easily adjusted for human factors?
- Is your strategy appropriate? Does it support your overall business purpose and vision?
- Is your strategy integrated? Does it create or maximize synergy in other areas of your organization?
Starting the Feedback Loop
Each of the frameworks above serves a different function for achieving your goals in 2021:
- Positive visualization allows you to be ambitious and visionary at a distance.
- OKRs help you with strategic goal-setting.
- FAST goals provide tactics for executing on your strategy.
- SCORE equips you with the agility to learn and pivot.
Each of these tools can be used within a team, or even on your own, helping you de-bias your thinking so you can get a more objective view of where your strategy is headed. But no abstract tool or acronym can replace regular, candid feedback.
By gathering input from a variety of sources—past and present colleagues, friends, teachers, and so on—you can develop a much broader and richer understanding of yourself, your goals, and whether you’re on the path to success.
Ask these individuals to provide information about your strengths. Ask them to accompany their statements with specific examples of moments when you’ve used your strengths in ways that were meaningful to them, their families or teams, or to their organizations.
You’ll notice that we’re suggesting that you solicit only positive feedback, here. Of course there is a time and place for constructive criticism, but we’re trying to provide an exception to the rule; we are already used to hearing about our strengths and weaknesses simultaneously. This can make the idea of purely positive feedback feel unrealistic, even false, and you may even worry that this request may come off as presumptuous or egotistical. Try to push these worries aside; this exercise will help improve your performance, building your morale and momentum as you head into the new year. You’ll be surprised at the feedback you receive and how convincing it is.
We suggest you supplement your self-assessments with feedback from your spouse or partner, mentor(s), friend(s), and colleagues you trust. Have them answer the following questions, and then follow up on answers that interest you:
- How do you experience me being a good leader?
- What do I do that makes your life easier?
- Would you describe me as task-oriented or people-oriented?
- Would you consider me slow-paced or fast-paced?
- Would you describe me as cautious or ambitious?
- What do I do that lifts you up?
- What do I do that brings you down?
- What do I do on the job / at home that you most admire?
- What do you see as my primary motivation?
- What do you see as my greatest strengths?
- How / where do I show my love?
- How / where do I show my loyalty?
- How / where / when do you observe me being most happy?
- What do you imagine is my ideal job position or description?
- If you imagine the best possible version of me, what advice do you think he/she would give to the present version of me?
Armed with the above information, look over your goals for 2021 one more time. Are there any you would like to adjust or change, based on the feedback you’ve received? Do you see adjustments needed at the strategic (1-year) or tactical (90 day) level? Are you leaning into your strengths with every new goal you set?
With these exercises done, return to your 3-year vision. Does it seem more possible now? We bet it does; bringing your best self to the demands of 2021 is your best predictor of success in this unpredictable but exciting year!