In the mid-1980s, Andy Grove at Intel and Gary Kennedy at Oracle started playing with traditional models for setting goals at companies. What they developed became known as the Objectives and Key Results or OKRs system — since tweaked and made famous by Google (which still faithfully practices it today). For a long time it was the latest and greatest in company planning and alignment (if you’re not familiar, you can get an overview here). But now something new is emerging: Goal Science Thinking.
It’s an approach that uses OKRs as a foundation and turbo-charges them by applying human behavioral psychology, increasing engagement, and enforcing regular practice. Essentially, it leverages all the tricks and hooks we mortals use to stick to good habits — only re-imagined to help large teams stay on top of business targets.
All of this is the province of a company called BetterWorks, headed up by CEO Kris Duggan who takes the term “dogfooding” to an entirely new meta level. Devoted to creating goal-tracking software at the cutting edge of these trends for companies like Kroger, Pact and AOL, BetterWorks uses its own product to set goals to build an even better product. And it’s grown tremendously in the process — adding nearly 50 new employees in just the last year, putting the scaling abilities of its software to the test.
In this exclusive interview, Duggan shares how Goal Science Thinking can make your company’s objectives more data-driven, collaborative, and ultimately more successful as a result. Along the way, he surfaces some surprising data around how humans set and pursue goals, and why we need a new norm to truly do our best work.
The BetterWorks team has done its research to show how goal-setting impacts companies. Here are some of their more fascinating findings:
Organizations that use formal goal setting exercises are 3.5X more likely to be in the top tier of financial performers every year.
Only 7% of employees report fully understanding their company’s business strategies and what’s expected of them to help achieve company goals.
The average employee can only work toward 3 to 5 goals at a time.
Only 1 in 2 senior leaders revise their goals throughout the year.
1 in 3 manager-level employees revise their goals in a year.
1 in 5 frontline employees revise their goals in a year.
So, despite the best efforts of leaders to introduce process that will connect employees to company-wide goals, they’re still failing. This is happening for several reasons explored in depth below. The opportunity is clear, but the execution needs help.
It’s telling that 100% of employees at BetterWorks participate in goal setting and remain actively engaged with their goals even between check-ins and reviews. The system they have in place maximizes for consistency and visibility.
Everyone at the company can view everyone else’s goals. There aren’t any secrets or hidden agendas. Hierarchy has been banished — allowing direct reports to view their manager’s goals and even those of managers on completely unrelated teams.
Interestingly, BetterWorks found that people view their supervisor’s goals 20% more often than their own. Obviously there’s appetite for this kind of knowledge and transparency. In older, more traditional systems, this wouldn’t have been possible. Only managers could have reviewed reports’ goals down through the chain of command.
Making goals visible to everyone is a necessary condition for consensus and alignment in an organization.
In order for a goal to be effective (i.e. for there to be any chance of it getting accomplished) it needs to be drafted and owned by an individual, reviewed by a manager, and tracked by both. If true transparency exists, you’ll know because your goals will connect to but not conflict with your manager’s goals, the company’s overarching goals, and your peers’ goals across teams.
One of the big differences between OKRs and Goal Science Thinking is that, in the latter, goals can have multiple contributors from across different teams and departments. For example, Duggan might be a contributor on a goal for his head of communications to land a number of articles about the company. Sales has to work with marketing to nail their messaging. Marketing has to work with engineering to truly understand the product. Visibility allows this level of collaboration to not only happen, but be documented and monitored.
“We always see better performance on goals with cross-functional contributors,” says Duggan. “Goals that are public for the entire company to see get 10.4% more check-ins than private goals.”
On top of that, people can easily identify themselves as contributors for the company’s big goals every quarter. Everyone talks about how individual OKRs should roll up to the company’s major objectives, but the link between them remains invisible. BetterWorks has seen how powerful it is for someone to go through the motions of clicking a button, saying their work contributes at the highest level.
It's important to note you don’t have to use BetterWorks to build this type of functionality into your goal setting. It can be something as simple as a Google Doc listing the names of all the people whose work feeds into the company’s itemized aspirations.
Consistency is also vital. BetterWorks recommends setting goals once a quarter and involving the entire company in the process so they end up with a balance of top-down and bottom-up priorities (Duggan gives the company a week to develop their own goals and suggest ideas for the company at large). Behavioral scientist Gary Latham found a while back that stakeholders who participate in goal setting end up doing better against those goals. This should be the aim of every company.
Quarterly conversations, however, are few and far between. So, on a monthly basis, BetterWorks’ leadership takes an hour to do a deep dive together and review progress against company quarterly goals.
“For anyone who makes a point of setting goals, there’s always the danger of setting and forgetting — in fact, most people do,” says Duggan. “You have to be incredibly regular in viewing them, assessing them, and measuring progress against them to stand any chance.”
Last year, BetterWorks rolled out at a large internet company with nearly 1,000 employees that was doing OKRs in a non-standardized way. Some departments used Asana. Some used Google Docs. This fragmentation hurt leadership’s ability to give one set of instructions around goal making. It prevented visibility and conversations about cross-functional goal setting. Once they were all on the same system, they were able to create 20,000 objectives with 80,000 key results. The first quarter, they saw 60,000 views on goals not by the goal owner — in other words, people were looking at about 12 goals they didn’t own in a quarter.
The motivation to see what your colleagues want and need is there, they just need a central, consistent tool.
One of the easiest triggers to put in place to enforce both visibility and consistency concerns one-on-one meetings. It makes sense that both parties in the meeting would want to see and understand each other’s goals. That way they could provide more tailored feedback, help monitor progress, and also better grok how to help and support each other. To get all these benefits, make it a company-wide practice that everyone reviews each other’s goals prior to one-on-ones.
“It prompts a really important conversation about how things are going, how people might be blocked, and how others around them can help remove these roadblocks for them,” says Duggan. “Goals should be pulled up both before and in every single one-on-one.”
“Some companies have really good task muscles — they get a lot of small stuff done all the time and get to feel really productive — but their goal muscles are really week,” says Duggan. “They don’t have the deliberate intention and direction behind all this activity. If this is your company, you’ll be as off balance as a bodybuilder with huge arms and tiny legs.”
The best way to build “goal muscle” — that is, the regular and effective use of goals to accomplish top priorities — is through constant, relentless re-engagement.
According to BetterWorks, goals that owners have checked 10 or more times over the course of a quarter are 21% more likely to be attained than those checked only once or twice. It’s worth baking in mechanisms to force regular engagement.
The most powerful of these tools is social reinforcement. No matter what system you’re using to record and track goals, it’s highly recommended to make it possible for people’s colleagues to comment and provide regular feedback on each other’s objectives and key results.
These comments can be questions, constructive criticism, praise, encouragement. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it will incentivize people to come back to their goals again and again simply to see what people are saying. Ideally, you can hook up notifications over Slack, push, or email to give folks a nudge.
“There’s an experiment where people are told to write down their goals, share them with a friend, and then send weekly updates on their progress to that friend,” says Duggan. “These people were 33% more successful in accomplishing their goals than their peers who simply wrote them down.”
Recognition of any variety is massive for prompting action. Every time someone comes back to their goals to see a comment or even just a thumbs up from a colleague, they’ll review what they wrote, think about the status of their projects, and up their efforts.
BetterWorks takes this hunger for recognition one step further by actually rewarding employees that engage socially around goals. For example, at the end of every quarter they hand out awards to people with the most check-ins on their goals, for the most comments made on others’ goals, etc.
One more bonus way to leverage social dynamics: Encourage your most influential team members to set ambitious personal goals and invite their co-workers to join. At BetterWorks, an engineer created a goal to do 20,000 push-ups during the quarter, and sent out an email saying others could donate push-ups toward this total if they wanted in on it. Over 10 people signed on to contribute to his goal, and altogether they did 24,000 push ups — exceeding the original goal by 20%. Now similar goals have been created around sit-ups, biking, and catching Pokemon.
Personal goals are inherently emotional, foster empathy, and compel a different level of interest than one might have in business goals. By encouraging them throughout your company, you’re giving people incentive to connect more often and on a deeper level with their colleagues. It doubles down on the practice of collaboration on goals, and will also get people to revisit their own more often.
The other mechanism for building “goal muscle” is to get people addicted to seeing progress.
“The quantified self movement — all these activity trackers like FitBit and Jawbone — have proven that people want to get frequent, measurable, visual and — this is key — graphical feedback,” says Duggan. “When individuals get this kind of positive, visual feedback, it literally shapes their behavior to take a more measured and consistent approach toward their goals."
Let’s say you can’t afford software that will give your team fancy progress bars to look at. That’s okay. You can still give them a visual emblem of how far they’ve come. It might just be an ever-lengthening list of completed projects and tasks. Maybe it’s a spreadsheet where you turn completed rows green. Whatever it is, you need a user-friendly, easily-digested representation of accomplishment as part of your goal system.
When people have the ability to move the needle on their progress, and see it happen, the pleasure center in their brain lights up. The same part of the brain that loves seeing retweets and Facebook likes. If you give them the ability to easily chart their progress this way, they’ll do it frequently, be reminded of their goals even more often, and get more done as a result.
Sculpting employee behavior like this doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t expect to give them social and progress tools and have everyone fall in love with your goal-setting system right away. “Give yourself 2 or 3 months to really build up the goal muscle that comes from increased engagement,” says Duggan. “Start with your executive leaders so they can set a positive example. Tap ‘goal masters’ who are enthusiastic about the system to evangelize and teach others through the ranks. You’ll see people convert.”
Home to early adopters who like to play with new products, startups tend to test out a lot of tools that never quite take hold and eventually get abandoned. This happens too often with goal-related tools when stick-to-itiveness is the whole ball game. But, as Duggan’s found, people keep using the tools they were first introduced to when they started a job.
“If you have an app or a product that you want to make a permanent cultural touchstone, integrate it big time into your onboarding process.”
In BetterWorks’ case, they use their goal software to fast-track new hire productivity, while also making goal setting a default for them from the start.
Honestly, the thing that keeps me up at night is how can I get my new hires to be productive.
Duggan’s onboarding fanaticism has manifested in what he calls the 30-Day Jump Start.
It kicks off when the hiring manager sends a welcome email to their new hire. Sure, it contains some intro info, bios of folks on the team, etc. But it also invites them to immediately create a goal using the BetterWorks software — a goal that they plan to accomplish in their first 30 days — complete with key results and milestones. (They’re asked to be aggressive.)
Doing their part, the manager quickly comments back, both praising and providing feedback on the goal the employee created. This gets folks in the rhythm of commenting and reading comments on their objectives. It also establishes a clear line of communication and expectations between employee and manager.
“This kicks off a healthy conversation about what ‘crushing it’ at our company looks like in the first 30 days,” says Duggan. “In my experience, demonstrating what success looks like is the quickest way to get someone oriented within a company.”
This process initiatives new hires into the way BetterWorks likes to communicate. For instance, studies have shown that framing goals positively leads to greater achievement. Instead of stating your goal as, “Try not to miss more than 3 out of 15 questions,” you should word it as “Try to correctly answer 12 out of 15 questions.” This prompts people to try their best, not simply avoid failure — language has a critical impact on outcomes, even if it seems nuanced.
On the same wavelength, this is why people are pushed to create stretch goals. Proactively reaching out for more promotes higher performance, even if it doesn’t all work out. As long as an employee has defined the goal for themselves, is capable of achieving it, and doesn’t have any conflicts, there tends to be a positive linear relationship between difficulty and work quality.
To make goal setting at your company work, the bar always has to be 100% participation. Starting at onboarding is your most powerful move in this direction. But it also takes rigorous practice going forward. Google’s been running a variation of this system 4 times a year for 17 years, and it’s still not perfect.
“Goal science is just a tool — not a religion,” says Duggan. “But if you do it right, it can have some pretty transformative effects on your business and how you get incredible results.”