5 min read


Good god that must have hurt. All credit to Marouane Fellaini for getting hit in the face

Setting goals for yourself provides direction around where you go, sparks motivation to get started on that journey and helps to sustain the discipline required to actually make it all the way to the end.

My experience in trying to inflict OKR's on an organisation was the main source of these sentiments, as prior to that I didn't really think about goals for myself all that much.

However, when I tried to reuse the OKR process to set appropriate goals for myself, I failed pretty miserably.

It's time to try a different approach.

Look, I Don't Watch Soccer

I find goals to be subtle creatures.

Not having them at all can leave you feeling aimless, wondering what the point of it all is. Not in an existential way, more that if there is no theming or common thread to your actions, it can be difficult to maintain momentum in a specific direction.

Even when you do have goals, you probably aren't sitting down for hours at a time working on them directly. You'll do things that contribute towards the goal, but you won't do the goal per se. Goals influence your actions, but do not entirely direct them.

Like I said, subtle.

Having said that, you should have goals of some sort, you shouldn't put too much effort into detailing them and you should regularly reflect on whether or not they are helping or hindering you.

A good goal is meaningful and represents change or growth. Setting a goal to maintain the status quo, for describe something that you were going to accomplish anyway feels supremely pointless from my point of view.

But how do you set a good goal?

But I Can Appreciate A Good Photo

Full disclosure, there have been a lot of goal setting conversations happening in Atlassian recently. It's not like people weren't setting goals before, but now there is a lot more focus on it and how it ties in with performance evaluations.

As a result, a lot of people much smarter and more experienced than me have been writing thought-provoking articles about effective ways of setting and reasoning about goals.

One such person was Fernando Bordallo, a fellow Engineering Manager, who wrote a great post about the Goals, Signals and Measures (GSM) model, and how you can use it to shape and define personal goals.

The framework breaks a good goal down into three distinct elements.

The first element is the goal itself, which is generally a statement about what you want to accomplish, though not the detail about that accomplishment or the path there. In OKR parlance, it's the objective.

For example, one of my own personal goals is:

Create a Cohesive Vision of the Future for Shard Management

As a standalone statement, the words could be better, but as a goal, it's good enough for me to understand the direction that I want to head in. Goals don't have to be perfect to be useful.

The second element of a good goal is the signals, which are sort of abstract and vague statements about things that you should be able to observe if the goal is on the right path.

To continue using the same example, for the goal above, I've defined two signals:

A strategy document exists for Shard Management

Members of Shard Management know that a strategy exists and can remember what it says

Again, not perfect, but nothing is.

The best part of writing down signals is that they don't have to be precise, so you don't need to stress about them. They can be messy or impossible to measure and that's okay. They are intended to flesh out your understanding of the goal and act as reminders of things for when you reflect later.

The last element of a good goal is the measures (or metrics), which are actual things that you can measure to show progress towards the goal over time, or perhaps the impact that you're aiming for.

Taking my goal as an example:

Future Confidence (Internal), as measured by a survey across all member of Shard Management, trends from ? to 90%

Future Confidence (External), as measured by a survey across all stakeholders of Shard Management, trends from ? to 90%

I like measures, but creating them is hard and actually measuring them is harder. Still, if you need an unequivocal way to show progress or impact, numbers are your best bet, and this is where you can make them shine.

Just don't spend all your time on the measurement and none of your time on actually achieving the goal. It's an easy trap to fall into.

And My God, This Is A Good Photo

Defining your goals is just the first step.

You need to actually look at them regularly, check your signals, capture your measures, reflect on progress and most importantly, evaluate if they are still good goals for you to put effort into.

So, you need to store them somewhere.

Me? I choose Trello, because that's my solution for most things.

In all seriousness though, because I already track my backlog in Trello, adding the goals there made sense. It means I only have to look at a single place to understand both the direction I want to head in and what the actions that I'm doing to get there.

Don't underestimate the impact of a single consolidated view for your work.

I have a column on the left of the board that contains all of my goals. Having them right there really helps me to keep them in frame whenever I'm planning my work for the week, or whenever I'm staring aimlessly into the void and having an existential crisis.

Either or.

Each goal is a single Trello ticket, and within each ticket are three lists:

  • Signals
  • Measures
  • Actions

After that comes notes and comments about the goal, which typically include regular reflections from myself on how I think I'm tracking or any other ambient thoughts I might have.

Here is an example of what it looks like in practice:

I combine the Trello goals with a Confluence page that provide an index of sorts, intended for use when communicating to my manager or other stakeholders who care about what I'm doing.

On that page, I list all of the goals that I have in a compact manner, along with along with general timelines and a quarterly summary of how I'm tracking (i.e. good, bad, finished, etc).

It's a good system and I like it a lot. If you're setting goals for yourself and using Trello for your backlog, I highly recommend it.

Getting Hit In The Face Sucks Though

So, personal goals.

Definitely have some. They help to focus your efforts and give you an overarching direction that you can reflect on later.

Don't waste tonnes of time making them perfect though.

Do just enough to set direction and then get on with things. You can always groom them further and tweak them later. It's much more important to keep moving forward than waste time spinning your wheels on perfection.

In general, I feel better about my personal goals these days.

Not in terms of how accomplishable they are or how much pressure there is to have them or the fear that I will be measured and evaluated entirely against them with no consideration for the other impact I create.

Oh no.

Just the fact that I have some and I didn't kill myself trying to make them perfect.

That's a nice feeling.