Shoot for Moon: What You Need to Know About Choosing Goals
I don’t think anyone would argue with the idea that goals are a critical aspect of running a successful business. Although, it’s often been my experience that peoples’ goals are either too fuzzy, too under-ambitious or too convoluted to really help them.
In my work I tend to distinguish two main types of goal, and both kinds must be used for the desired impact:
1. Horizon goals - these represent our understanding of what ‘winning’ looks like. This might be an exit valuation, profitability of a business or a desired social impact, e.g. ‘1 million people have access to fresh drinking water.’
2. Proximate goals - these represent desirable waypoints on the journey to winning, that are more predictable and easily attainable than the horizon goal.
A classic example of a horizon goal is the May 25th 1961 announcement by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, that the U.S., “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Now, this was certainly a laudable ‘win’ for the U.S. in the space race, but I’m not entirely sure how James Webb - then head of NASA - was feeling. Although he had conceded that it should be possible, NASA had no plan. I would not be entirely surprised if a mild sense of panic accompanied this public pronouncement.
That’s another sign of a good horizon goal. You’d like it to come about but you feel a mild sense of fear about how challenging it appears. If you’re not a little panicked, the question might be, “Is this goal worthy enough?”
If Kennedy had said, “Okay NASA, speak to you in 8.5 years,” he might have been in for a rude surprise come July 20 1969. Maybe the goal would turn out to be impossible, or maybe much of that time would have been wasted chasing up blind alleys?
Landing a man on the moon and bringing him back alive was a massive undertaking. If you were James Webb sitting in your office on the day after that first announcement, where would you even start?
A proximate goal could have been, “Get a man to orbit the moon and come back alive.” This is a useful goal because, if we could do this, there is a more plausible chance we can achieve our horizon goal. Yet still, this could be seen as a major challenge (in fact, it would not be achieved until December 1968 - some 7 years after the original challenge was set).
A more proximate goal would be putting a man into Earth orbit and return him safely, which was achieved in Feb 20 1962. This is a useful proximate goal because, again, it is on the path to our ultimate goal but it was also somewhat understood how this would be achieved.
From all of this, we can see that proximate goals form an arc, over time, leading towards the horizon and, at the same time, a set of go/no-go checkpoints as to whether that horizon goal is achievable at all.
In most cases I think it makes sense to define proximate goals in terms of a month, a quarter, and a year, which creates a nice blend of the close at hand and mid-term. I’ve no objection to planning over a longer term, but we need to understand that things change so quickly that 3-5 year plans are often outdated before the ink is even dry.
When setting proximate goals, the closer the time frame, the better understood the goal should be in terms of our ability to execute on it. Meaning, do we understand how we will achieve the goal? And do we have the skills, tools, and resources required to achieve it?
Setting a goal we plan to achieve in a month’s time is highly likely to fail if we don’t know how it will be done, nor have the tools, resources or skills required on hand.
This might suggest that our goal is too ambitious and should be broken down further. It might imply that our timeline is unreasonable and that our horizon goal needs to be moved out. It could be that we need to marshal new skills and resources to achieve it on time. In my experience, it’s better to know this as early as possible and adapt our plans, rather than realising after 8 years that we’re not going to the moon after all!
So, in order for a business to thrive, you need ambitious, meaningful, horizon goals that both challenge and motivate. And a series of proximate goals that guide you along the way or help you to understand when you need to change course.
“Shoot for the Moon; you might get there”, said Buzz Aldrin. Are you setting the right kind of goals to get to take you where you want to be?