The best way to set team goals

January 14, 2021 - 14 min read

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Benefits of team goals

How to set goals: Start SMART

Leading the goal-setting process with your team

How to measure success

Examples of team goals

Most organizations today are goal-driven and analytic-oriented. Setting the right goals is key for driving performance and moving the organization toward its long-term vision.

Team goals are performance objectives that require the contributions of everyone on the team. The best team goals are co-created with the team members and aligned with larger organizational goals.

Team goals have some important differences from the goals you might set for yourself. Think of the difference between an individual sport (tennis) and a team sport (basketball). 

As an example, a coaching client of mine recently came to a coaching session saying her team needed to improve on communication with internal stakeholders. She is the senior director of a team that provides enterprise-wide support, meaning many different divisions of the tech company have simultaneous projects that need her team’s attention. The team had recently doubled in size, with new hires brought on board to meet the increasing demand. And while they were excelling at the quality of the work, many internal stakeholders complained to my client that they were not receiving status updates on their projects.

Using the example of team communication to internal stakeholders, this article will explain the benefits of setting team goals, how to set goals with your team, and how to measure the results.

Benefits of team goals

Setting team goals collaboratively with your team has many benefits for you as the leader, your team members, and the organization as a whole. 

  • Team goals help team members understand how their individual work fits within the group.
  • Team goals provide a clear direction and plan-of-action for your team.
  • Team goals facilitate better accountability and encourage ownership
  • Team goals create opportunities to build trust and collaboration.
  • Team goals contribute to the professional growth and development of new skills among team members.
  • Team goals provide a structure for measuring individual and group-level progress.
  • Creating team goals may help you identify overlooked or unassigned priorities.
  • Team goals can be used to evaluate performance.
  • Team goals clarify the contribution the team is making to the organization.

The practice of coming together to define and agree on goals is beneficial in and of itself, giving the group time and space to reflect on where they are, what the team has accomplished, and where it wants to go. The process should raise points of misunderstanding, provide opportunities to clarify, and highlight conflicting priorities. Finally, the exercise allows everyone on the team to feel, and truly be, more bought-in to the goals and more invested in the results. Team goal-setting is a valuable exercise that shouldn’t be rushed through or done as proforma.

How to set goals: Start SMART

Revisiting the example of the senior director whose team was struggling with communicating to internal stakeholders, I asked her what her goal was.  Her first response was, “I don’t want missed communications to escalate to me.”  While this is a fair and desirable goal, it was not yet a SMART goal, nor was it necessarily a team goal. 

A SMART goal is one that is written within the following framework:

S: Specific. Aim to articulate the team goal in the most clear and specific way.

M: Measurable. Identify the metrics that will demonstrate the goal was achieved.

A: Attainable. State the goal in a way that is challenging, but possible to achieve.

R: Relevant.  The goal should be important to the team and the organization.  

T: Time-bound. Clarify the deadline or target date for the goal.

What does that framework look like applied in the real world? 

With my client, we discussed her challenge more deeply and she was able to articulate a SMART goal she could present to her team:

Proactively communicate with all internal stakeholders at least weekly on the status of their project, so that the number of escalations reduces by half in 3 months.

You can cross-check this new goal with the SMART criteria to see what is SMART about it:

S: The goal is focused, specific and clear.

M: This goal includes two measurements. The first is the weekly updates to internal stakeholders and the second is the reduction of escalations.

A: The action of “proactively communicate with all internal stakeholders” clarifies the action team members need to take.

R: Weekly communication is a high-priority, relevant, and realistic goal for her staff members.

T: At the three-month marker, the senior director will be able to know whether weekly updates have been sent and escalations have been reduced by half.


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Leading the goal-setting process with your team

While the SMART approach provides a structure for well-articulated goals, there are other important components of the team goal-setting process.

  • Align with company priorities. Before meeting with your team, meet with your manager. Make sure you are clear on the organization’s performance expectations of the team. These will serve as a roadmap for the SMART goals you co-create with your team.
  • Re-frame in ways that are meaningful to team members as well as other stakeholders. The bottom line alone, or the productivity numbers, may not motivate or offer meaning in the way that lives served or accidents avoided might. Look for other ways to frame goals, or additional goals, that spark enthusiasm in the team.
  • Listen to your team. While the company priorities provide the higher-level guide, you will need more information to develop quality team goals. Your team members have insights for you on what can be improved and innovative ideas for how to demonstrate success. Creatively engage your team in these conversations and listen deeply to identify key ideas for setting and achieving team goals.
  • Identify your contributions. Remember that you, as the leader, are part of the team too.  You have work to do to make sure the goals get accomplished. When you make your contributions transparent as part of the goal-setting process, your staff will know that you are a contributor in achieving the team goals.
  • Don’t rush. Lead your team through multiple rounds of feedback and input on the drafts of the team goals. The quality and clarity of your goals will get better and more SMART with each draft.
  • Solidify buy-in. At the buy-in stage, your job is to make sure that no team member is left behind. Everyone should feel very committed to the goals and to making the work-related changes needed to achieve those goals. If necessary, engage in one-on-one conversations to air remaining doubts and concerns.

Returning to the example of my coaching client, when I asked her why she thought so many projects were escalating to her, she was uncertain. She said she had been reinforcing the importance of communicating project status at weekly staff meetings, but nothing had changed. I asked her a simple coaching question: “Have you asked them why nothing has changed?” She realized that she had been communicating to her team but not yet listening to them. 

This led her to initiate a new conversation with the team during which they said they did not have enough time to write the project status updates. As a result, everyone bought into the agreement of blocking time on Monday afternoon for weekly communications to internal stakeholders. All staff would use the designated time period to write and send project status updates, and no other meetings would be allowed at that time. 

In terms of the SMART system, this listening session resulted in a change to the team goal to make it even more specific and timebound.  The revised goal:

Proactively communicate with all internal stakeholders by writing Monday project status update emails so that the number of escalations reduces by half in 3 months.

How to measure success

The most important part of team goals is making sure you know how you will measure success. You must develop an accountability system to track your progress.  When a team fails to achieve a goal, the lack of an accountability system is often the culprit. Some best practices for measuring success are:

  • Decide on the goal-tracking process, and who is responsible for tracking what. 
  • Select a technology that will help track your team’s work and keep people accountable.
  • Know what data sets you need to measure your progress and ensure the right people have access to that data.
  • Schedule check-ins with the team on a regular basis to get their input on progress and barriers that need to be removed.  
  • Produce progress updates. Depending on the goal, you may need to measure weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Be prepared to provide data and progress updates to your higher-ups.

Remember to pay attention to what will motivate your team members throughout the process. When you measure progress toward team goals, you get the opportunity to make necessary modifications to the team goals. Make the progress transparent, whether you are achieving the goal or not, and discuss openly what is working and not working with the team.

You may need to provide additional support and development to team members or advocate for more resources and time. When team goals are on track, remember to celebrate the progress with your team members.

Examples of team goals

In this blog, I used the example goal of team communication to internal stakeholders from one of my coaching clients, but team goals can fall into all sorts of categories.

If you are feeling stuck on how to write team goals for your group, below are a few examples to get you started.

Notice that these goals use the SMART framework and are phrased in the positive, with an emphasis on what will be achieved. 

  • Learning goal: Achieve six-sigma certification for all team members within the calendar year.
  • Responsiveness goal: Reduce online chat support wait time by an average of 2% each month.
  • Brand identity goal: Double the number of followers on key social media sites within the next 3 months.
  • Customer loyalty goal: Achieve an annual subscription renewal rate of 95% or greater.
  • Compliance goal: Implement new web-based data security protocols prior to the governmental deadline.
  • Meeting goal: Hold cross-functional team meetings twice per month between the software development team and the test team to identify and resolve issues.
  • Customer satisfaction goal: Within a year, improve product ratings on the e-commerce site from 4.2 to 4.6 out of 5 stars.
  • Employee engagement goal: Maintain employee engagement scores in the range of above average-to-excellent on all quarterly pulses.
  • Debugging goal: Resolve all critical-level software bugs within four hours of being reported.
  • Educational goal: Implement five customer education webinars per quarter with at least 20 participants in each.
  • Product development goal: Annually innovate two new business products that get moved to the development stage.
  • QA goal: Achieve a nightly automated software QA test pass rate of 99+%
  • Goal setting goal: Apply the SMART system to collaboratively create next fiscal year’s goals with my team.

While the "why" is not part of the goal, being clear about what will be achieved and why it matters can help inspire and guide the team. For any of the goals above, a team might try to complete the phrase "so that we can ..." Goals that are framed in a way that is compelling and aspirational have more power to motivate and align a team. 

Team goals are an important part of today's goal-oriented organization. Making yours SMART, focusing on outcomes, and keeping your team involved in the process is a big step toward success. 

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Published January 14, 2021

Paula Thompson, Ed.D

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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