Goals and OKRs

Why Your Company Needs to Set Ambitious, Actionable Goals

December 20, 2023
April 17, 2024
Rosanna Campbell
Lattice Team

Ever tried to get fit? You make a plan. You book the time in your calendar. You decide that this time, you really are going to do it. You’re serious. You’re committed. You bought the expensive running shoes. You signed up for the gym. 

You’re all in. And, three weeks later…you’re all out. You went to the gym a grand total of twice. The expensive running shoes are still in their box. 

One of the biggest issues with this kind of goal setting is that “get fit” isn’t an actionable goal. What does “fit” mean to you? What does getting fit look like? How will you even know if you get there? Researchers found that setting exercise goals the wrong way can actually make people less likely to improve their overall fitness. 

And the same can be true for organizations. Too many teams set out lofty-sounding objectives without clearly defining the actionable steps it will take to get there. The end result? The goalposts keep receding into the distance. 

On the flip side, there’s ample evidence to indicate that setting actionable goals helps to keep employees satisfied, teams motivated, and companies productive. In this article, we’ll dive into the right way to set actionable goals to drive your team’s success. 

What Are Actionable Goals?

Actionable goals are clearly defined, tangible objectives that can guide people or organizations toward the outcomes they want.

Such goals can help steer you toward action because you’ve defined exactly what you want and considered how you’ll get there. Research suggests that clear, specific goals are typically more effective than vague or general goals. 

Features of Actionable Goals

To be actionable, a goal should have the following features: 

  • A well-defined outcome. For instance, “get fit” is not a well-defined outcome. The meaning of “fit” is subjective, not objective, so you have no way of knowing whether or not you’ve reached the goal. A well-defined outcome here might be “Be able to run for 5K without needing to walk.” 
  • A due date. For a goal to be considered actionable, it needs to have a time frame attached. Otherwise, it’s more a general intention than a goal. To use our fitness goal, we might go with “Be able to run for 5K continuously, in time for the company fun run in February.” Adding in a date creates a necessary sense of urgency. 
  • A way to measure progress. An actionable goal is a goal that can be measured. You can’t measure whether or not you’re “fit” because “fit” is not a fixed benchmark. However, you can measure how long you can run before you need to walk, or your running pace, for instance.

The Difference Between SMART and Actionable Goals 

Sometimes, people use the terms “actionable goal” and “SMART goal” interchangeably. However, they aren’t really the same thing. Actionable goals are simply goals that can be acted upon, whereas SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals follow a specific goal-setting framework. 

It’s safe to say that all SMART goals are actionable. However, not all actionable goals are “SMART.” For example, you could deliberately set an actionable goal that was unlikely to be achievable. 

You might have come across the term BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goals) — moonshot goals that may well never be achieved, but that can help a team or organization push itself further than a more conservative objective could. These goals don’t necessarily qualify as achievable, but they can be actionable. For instance, instead of trying to run for 5K, you could decide to train for a marathon. 

Why Your Company Needs to Set Actionable Goals

Companies thrive when they know exactly what they need to achieve and what specific actions are required to get to that point. 

The numbers bear this out, too. According to a 2021 survey by BI WORLDWIDE, employees who set goals are: 

  • 14.2 times more likely to feel inspired at work
  • 6.5 times more likely to say their role helps them master the skills they need
  • Nearly twice as likely to say they feel their ideas are taken seriously

Through effective goal setting, employees have a clear idea of what they’re doing from day to day and where the company is going, and this, in turn, improves engagement (which also boosts productivity). 

Benefits of Setting Actionable Goals

Setting actionable goals can have enormous benefits, for both individuals and teams. Actionable goals are likely to: 

Offer Greater Focus and Clarity

In the words of researchers Jessica Höpfner and Nina Keith of the Technical University of Darmstadt, “Over 1,000 studies have consistently shown that setting high and specific goals is linked to increased task performance, persistence, and motivation, compared to vague or easy goals.” 

Actionable goals help to move employees and teams away from busy work and toward a meaningful action plan. By helping keep the endpoint at the front of your mind at all times, clear goals make it easier to prioritize your time better, avoid distractions, and work toward your pre-defined objectives. 

Increase Productivity 

Research published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology suggests that nudging people to use SMART goals during their workday can increase the amount of “flow” experienced by people at work, which in turn results in “higher engagement and subjective performance when compared to the control group.” 

It makes sense — once you’re clear about what you’re doing, you can focus more easily on getting it done. 

Provide Accountability

If you have a measurable goal, you can track your progress in meaningful ways. This makes it easier to identify when you’re going off course and navigate any roadblocks on your way to success. In a team context, actionable goals can also help flag up if a team member isn’t delivering the necessary level of contribution to get you all where you’re trying to go. 

Help Quantify Success

An actionable goal can help you understand what success looks like and define milestones and quantitative metrics to evaluate your progress. To go back to our fitness example for a moment, once you’ve defined success as the ability to run 5K without walking, you know the metrics you’ll be tracking (time spent walking) and what the finish line will be (that 5K run). 

How to Set Actionable Goals for Your Business

Before you consider what your approach to goal setting might look like, it’s essential to pause and consider what type of goals your company needs. It would be prudent to evaluate how organizational structure, size, and growth rate will impact where your company is going, as well as which way the winds are blowing in the wider industry. 

There is no one-size-fits-all goal-setting framework — all long-term goals must be sustainable and adjustable to the many shifts that can occur over the four quarters of the year. 

However, there are two well-established and reliable methods for organizational goal setting that we recommend: SMART goals and OKRs. 

How to Write Actionable Goals With the SMART Framework

A good goal-setting model will allow you to clearly articulate why your company is moving in a particular direction, and how to get there. A great goal-setting model will properly contextualize your objectives, taking into account the factors, within and without the company, that might affect the completion of your goals. 

If you take SMART goals as a model, you will have a precise method for implementing goals that are measurable and specific. 

We’ve already defined SMART goals, but here’s how the acronym breaks down in more detail: 

  • Specific: Does the goal have specific means and ends?
  • Measurable: Can the goal be measured? How?
  • Actionable/Achievable: Can you realistically achieve this goal? If so, what are the actions you need to take to accomplish it?
  • Relevant/Realistic: Is this goal relevant to your job duties, team, and company? Is it based on factors that are under your control?
  • Time-Bound: What is the time period? Does it depend on a deadline or target date, or is it on a regular schedule?

SMART Goal Example

Here’s an example of a regular goal, and how you can make it SMART: 

Regular Goal: “Get the company to use SMART goals.”

SMART Goal:‍ “Ensure that 90% of managers are using SMART goals in their quarterly performance reviews before the end of Q2, so we become more goal-oriented (as per our company objective for this year). Provide goal-setting software and SMART goal training to all managers, so they can define, track, and communicate goals with employees. Schedule regular manager-employee check-ins to review SMART goals.” 

The revised goal is both actionable and SMART because it is: 

  • Specific: “Ensure that 90% of managers are using SMART goals in their quarterly performance reviews.”
  • Measurable: We’ve specified a percentage of managers that need to comply for the goal to be reached. 
  • Actionable/Achievable: We’ve indicated how we’ll achieve the goal — by providing appropriate tools and training. 
  • Relevant/Realistic: We’ve indicated that the goal is relevant because it ties into an annual corporate objective. 
  • Time-Bound: We gave ourselves the deadline of “before the end of Q2.” 

As a result, we have a goal that will be far easier for our HR team to work toward than the initial aim, “Get the company to use SMART goals.” While 90% is a big goal, by defining the how, when, and why as well as the what, we’ve made it more actionable.

Curious about setting SMART goals? Check out our Ultimate Guide to SMART Goals for more best practice tips and examples. 

How to Write Ambitious, Actionable Goals With OKRs

The objectives and key results (OKR) framework is a concise but comprehensive means to break down your business goals. 

Introduced by Andy Grove, former president at Intel, and popularized through his 1983 book High Output Management, OKRs have become a cornerstone for some of the most well-known organizations in the world, such as Google, Microsoft, and even the British government.In essence, OKRs are a tool for breaking down goals (objectives) and mapping out the road to their attainment (key results).

Screenshot with an example OKR from Lattice, explaining that strong OKRs are clear and ambitious and indicate measurable key results.
Lattice makes it easy to define and work toward ambitious OKR goals.

OKRs should be made to fit the particular objectives of different levels in the organization:

  • Company OKRs are the high-level focus areas for the entire company. These represent the big picture. Everyone should buy into these, from the executive team down. 
  • Team OKRs define priorities for each team, and should directly relate to the company OKRs.
  • Individual OKRs define what each person is working on. Ideally, these should be personal goals set by the employee in question, with the company and team goals in mind. 

OKRs also come with a scoring system that quantifies goal attainment by assigning values from zero through one. With such a system, 0 means a total failure, 0.5 would represent progress toward the goal, and 1 would represent complete success. 

OKRs operate on the understanding that progress toward your objective is what’s important, not necessarily hitting your goal in absolute terms. In fact, achieving your goal outright might be a sign that you weren’t ambitious enough with the objective you set.

OKR Example

Here’s an example of how to restate your goal as an OKR:

Regular Goal: Improve customer retention 

OKR Version:

  • Objective: Improve our NPS Score by 20% to boost customer retention.
  • Key results:
    • Produce three resources to increase customer satisfaction by the end of the quarter.
    • Launch community to help customers share learnings by X date.
    • Reduce implementation time for new customers by 50% in six months.

If you’re interested in the OKR framework, here’s a comprehensive guide to writing more effective OKRs, with a ton of further examples. 

Actionable Goal Examples

You can set actionable goals at home, as an individual employee, as a team, and as a company. 

Here are a few examples of poorly worded goals, and how you can make them more actionable: 

Poorly Worded Goals Actionable Goals
“I will write articles more often.” “I will write three articles this week.”
“I will sell more this month.” “I will call one ‘ex-client’ every week this month to try to reestablish our relationship.”
“I will improve client relationships.” “I will visit every large client in person at least 2X this year.”
“I will improve webinar follow-ups.” “I will follow up with everyone who attends our webinars with a phone call within one week.”

If you’d like some more examples, check out our free goal-setting templates. You can find done-for-you templates for goal reviews, OKRs, SMART goals, and more. 

Setting Actionable Goals With Lattice

If you need a tool to help you and your team set more effective goals, check out Lattice OKRs & Goals. Our easy-to-use platform can help you accelerate growth, by connecting individual achievements to organizational success. 

Lattice's goal-setting software helps align your entire organization by keeping objectives crystal clear.

For more guidance on how to formulate and implement effective goal-setting models, such as how technology can be leveraged for your goals, please take a look at HR's Complete Guide to Goal Setting.