Can i take a moment to say that i have learned to hate Goals?
i don’t mean things like “Personal Goals” (like to learn to play the piano, meet some famous individual, travel to location, etc.) or the sort of things they keep track of in football matches, i’m talking about the Goals you’re expected to set and achieve every quarter/year by your employer.
What Are They?
A Goal is how you justify being paid. They’re a set of tasks that you’ve declared you’ll accomplish in X period for the benefit of the organization. They’re the short description of your work that your boss will read and regurgitate up the chain to whoever decides you get a paycheck.
If you’re clever, your goals will align with your company / division / team.
If you’re creative, they’ll extend the reach of company / division / team and make your direct chain look better.
In reality, they’re an experiment to determine who is good at predicting the future or has insider information that can be attributed to higher placed individuals.
Why They Suck
Goals are great if you’re doing factory work. They fall into the class of “i will do X more efficiently to increase profitability”. This could be reduce costs. This could be to increase productivity. This could be to acquire more revenue or assets for the org. If you’re working for an org that does something like that, it’s super easy to come up with one or more goals. Again, if you’re clever, you’ll even help yourself out by quietly introducing an inefficiency that you can then claim to improve in some future period.
This is because your manager is not paying attention to you specifically. Often, the system is self reporting. You set your goals and later report accomplishment or failure. This is super obvious if there’s a “self-assessment” operation. You’re going to report that “i’m Awesome! Except for the fact that i only did 10x more this quarter than i predicted.” That last bit shows that you’ve got room to grow and will be the point that your manager will discuss with you during your review.
There is absolutely no reason to be honest, even though you’re regularly told you must be. Let’s say you were honest and put down “i got everything done, on time and on schedule, but the project was cancelled.” You would be at a disadvantage since there’s no win and you’ve effectively wasted your time. You had no control over the project being cancelled, but that was also a failure for not predicting it would. Management has a reason not to give you a raise. Congratulations.
Mind you, your boss is most likely innocent in this. They have to repeat this operation with however many reports they have, which gets multiplied up the chain. If you’ve ever been a TA grading papers, you know how much fun it is. At some level there’s a fixed budget that is used to determine who gets a raise, promoted, or dismissed. If the pool is about 5% per employee, and Sue gets a raise and bonus of 7%, then Bob may get only 3% this year. Better luck next year, Bob.
Where things start getting ugly is when you aren’t doing a metric based set of tasks.
Take, say, what i do. My job is to work on key back-end services, modernize and support them. My job is to deal with the acquired technical debt accrued with each new product release. And because New Thing is Awesome happens a fair bit, there’s a good amount of debt as folks wander off between New Thing is Shipped and Audience is Relying on New Thing. Never mind what it’s like at We’ve Been Charging Customers For Two Years for Thing, and Now There’s A Critical Bug.
Because, yeah, those things happen.
So, when it comes time for me to put together a list of goals, things get ugly fast. i have to predict the future, then when chaos happens. i race at the end of the evaluation period to try and do the thing i said was important however many months ago. If i were really playing the game right, i’d let the chaos collapse around me while i focused only on the few tasks i said i would.
i mean, sure, three core items of technology collapsed and the market disappeared, but look at the kerning and word placement on this document. ✔️
Sometimes figuring out goals is easy. In the first half of the year, i put together a new client library for one of the services i oversee and greatly improved operation and utility, and i was able to show a tick mark next to a goal, meaning i’m getting paid this half of the year.
i also did a bunch of other stuff, like work with 3rd party vendors, maintain support libraries, build relationships with customers, etc. that kept me pretty busy, but no check mark for that. Most of the time, i do support. i’m one of the “medics”/”clerics” of the org.
i have a beefy goal for this half of the year, but we might remove it. i’ve been busy pushing a critical bit of infrastructure closer to done (not a personal goal). We’ve also got an intern next year and it’ll be a good project for them. So, that leaves me without a goal.
Aside from the critical bit of infrastructure (which is more a shared goal), keeping things running so we can consider offering a pay service (also shared) and getting my boss up-to-speed (shared), and whatever other fires crop up.
This leads to “retroactive goal setting” where i get fairly late into the half and thanks to copious weekly activity report keeping, specify what major accomplishments i hit as ‘goals’. Usually with my direct managers approval because my goals are late and they need to checkbox that they’re in.
Because, again, this is more about giving someone a reason to continue to pay you for 6 months.
So, what should we use?
i’m willing to say “right tool for the job”.
For tasks, there’s no reason not to use a task list. As an org, you probably already have these. They’re what you use to get to your corporate goals.
For determining value, there’s, i dunno, let’s use employee contributions. Folks should keep a list of things they’ve done and (with the help of their manager and peers) write up a summary that can be presented at the end of the evaluation period, because that’s the end goal anyway. Maybe it’s “increased the number of X by Y%”. Yay you!
As an org, it’s a lot easier to plot how well your group is doing to achieve a given set of goals. There’s your group metric, but at the individual basis, probably not a great idea to introduce something that’s going to be gamed like nobody’s business.
Unless your job is to pull the lever and press the button to make the widget, there’s going to be a lot of complexity and unforeseeable events. Don’t make things hostile toward those.
i generally rally against the idea of work accounting. Not being held accountable (as in “you failed to deliver a task we needed by when we needed it that you said you could do), i mean accounting (as in you committed over 200,000 lines of code this quarter and resolved 47 issues). It’s why i am not a super fan of scrum’s Burn List.
But yeah, the current state of Goal keeping is just the fever dream of accountants.