It seems like almost everyone has something to say about setting goals, and coming up with their own way for achieving them. Books by the late Stephen Covey and organizational tools such as Day-Timers and online file sharing solutions like Dropbox have made a lasting impression on the way we organize our lives. In a much-cited paper from 2006, two researchers found that establishing specific goals was more likely to lead to better results and improved performance than simply encouraging workers to "do their best."
Goals that challenged workers to stretch, the paper concludes, "lead to greater effort, focus and persistence than moderately difficult or easy goals." Workers who rose to the occasion also felt a greater sense of purpose, self-fulfillment, and value to the company.
Here are the experiences of three owners in setting goals for their business for next year.
Giving everyone a say
Founded in 2006, Savvy Rest in Charlottesville, Virginia, makes organic mattresses and bedding accessories made from natural, non-toxic materials. Gross sales were $4.5 million last year, up 55 percent since 2008, according to Michael Penny, president and sole owner. "There's more competition now than there was five years ago because [bigger manufacturers] see that you can be profitable doing what we do and so they want to get in," he says.
Penny holds a two-day meeting every September with his marketing, operations, production, and recruiting departments. The five-member team sets goals for the coming year by performing a SWOT analysis—Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats—that uncovers and addresses critical issues affecting profitability.
To keep on track, they'll also meet twice a month, either for a couple of hours or sometimes for a whole day if a big decision needs to be made. Because the five-member team is representative of Savvy Rest's entire 20-person workforce, they can modify their goals more nimbly, make sure everyone is on board, and move forward.
Case in point: At their meeting last March, they realized that they would soon run out of room in their 23,000-square foot production facility. They had the chance to buy a small parcel of land with a tenant on it at an affordable monthly payment, so they authorized Penny to make the deal. "I could have done it anyway—I own the company—but I want everybody's buy in," he recalls. "They help me act on the good ideas and refrain from acting on the bad ones."
Improving the business for the long-term
The recession and sputtering economy upended the plans of thousands of small businesses including The Queensboro Shirt Company, a Wilmington, North Carolina-based online seller of custom logo apparel and promotional products primarily for small- and medium-sized businesses. As a result, adjusting to the challenging climate was their first goal.
Like Savvy Rest, the key players at Queensboro met at the end of the summer to evaluate their marketing programs, map out customer acquisition targets, and model retention revenue. Based on this, they'll put together a plan for the first half of 2013. In March or April of next year, they'll go back and refine their projections for the second half.
To give the 115-person workforce a concrete appreciation of the company's progress, Queensboro invested in a web-based order processing system several years ago that has had a profound impact.
"Everybody in our business has a real-time display on their desktops of orders that were received by the hour, broken up by new and existing customers," explains Fred Meyers, who founded the company in 1982. "We adjust in real time as we see the results come in. If it looks like our projections are off for that
month, we reevaluate what we projected going forward." Sales for the company reached about $13 million in 2011.
Meyers is executing two new goals for the fourth quarter holiday season. First, a customer referral program that rewards existing customers with a merchandise credit for referring a friend. Second, a sampling program that allows new customers to buy a quality shirt with their custom embroidered logo on it for just 99 cents. "It's a real aggressive deal," Meyers admits. "We find that when a customer tries us out, they tend to spend several hundred dollars with us over three or four or five years. It's worth it to us to invest in establishing a relationship with that customer."
Meyers emphasizes that focusing on the long-term goal of improving the organization is more important than just daily, weekly, or monthly sales figures. "I want this business to be the absolute best at what it does," he says. "That's the biggest goal that we have."
Limited goals, clearly expressed
SeekingSitters, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based on-demand referral service that extensively screens and supplies qualified babysitters, has licensed franchises in 15 states since its founding in 2004. The growth of the business can be traced, in part, to accountability, achievable goals, and clear communication.
The initiatives for the week are spelled out during a short meeting every Monday with the entire office team. Then, on Friday, another meeting reviews that week's accomplishments and identifies the actions that need to be taken the following week. "It shows everybody what you're moving towards and what you've been able to get through," explains Adrienne Kallweit, the company's founder. Based on a review of past projects and how they've moved forward, monthly and quarterly goals are also developed.
Kallweit thinks that small business owners make a mistake when they push their office team to attempt big, multiple goals at the same time. She directs her team to concentrate on two or three specific goals instead. "If you're trying to have the entire office team look at the big picture, it's really hard for them to stay focused," she explains. "It's important to present limited tasks and focus in on these, [like] our Monday morning initiatives."
Communicating those goals so that they will be acted on is the third part of her strategy. Kallweit's team tries to deliver messages in three different ways to accommodate different learning styles. To impart a big-picture message, for example, they'll deliver it in person, over the phone, and also through email.
In its simplest form, setting a goal takes only three things: a realistic objective, a clear plan for how and when to accomplish it, and the will to do it. You can map out a strategy using pen and paper, or check out these free online tools: