Going from Abstract Goals to Measurable Results

A few posts back I wrote about how important it is to think about results when you’re leading a remote team.

The TL:DR was that whether your team is remote or local,  clear, measurable expectations up front, ideally through consensus. Those expectations should come with a set of results that everyone agrees will have the desired outcome, results that help move bigger pieces into place, help to create impact toward a larger objective or outcome.

It turns out that these results are the trickier part of that equation – we very frequently, as humans, have personal and professional desires that don’t fit that neatly into check lists or “improve 10%” style goal sheets.

I’ve spoken to a few folks about this since creating that post, so I’d like to dip into this idea with a little more depth, if you’ll allow it.

Results are measurable, but they are only indicators.

OK, Simon, what does that mean?

I’m going to borrow from a friend of mine here, Bryce Boratko. I met Bryce when I was working in Providence, RI – I had three jobs at the time, one at a bakery, one at a community college, and one at the newly-opened Crossfit Providence.

Bryce was a former chef, having worked in Michelin starred kitchens, turned really extraordinary strength and conditioning coach. He was coaching at Crossfit Providence, and I remember a conversation that I had with him around that time.

I was talking with him about how I enjoyed Crossfit because it was a kind of exercise that mimicked my sport at the time, rugby. I liked that it made me better at rugby, or felt like it did.

He nodded, and said, “What do you want to get out of working out here?”

I said, “I want to get stronger!”

He kept nodding, “Ok, how will you know when you’re stronger?”

And I didn’t have a great answer for that. I’d been going to the gym for a long time, since junior high school really, with this abstract objective of becoming a stronger version of myself.

Through conversations with Bryce it became much more clear to me that what was more important was understanding what would indicate to me what being strong meant to me. It turned out to involve heavy back squats – but that’s a story for another day.

I could never put a number on what it meant to be a stronger version of myself – what I could do was look at where I was at that moment, and a place where I could say with certainty that I’d moved in the right direction.

I knew if I could lift X weight, Y number of times, that I was moving in the right direction. These small, measurable outputs were indicators of a larger change taking place.

This is important – small, measurable steps will always be more effective than large, abstract goals.

Javascript is different than lifting weights, Simon.

Well, it is and it isn’t, right? Any Big Goal that feels hard to put a number to is abstract in the same way. As a leader or as an autodidact or as anyone who wants to get better, being able to break your big, abstract goals into measurable, actionable results is key to your success and your team’s success. Here are some examples of Big Goals:

  • Learn JavaScript
  • Become a better team lead
  • Get a dream job

None of these goals are going to take well to quantification. What you can do, more productively, is ask yourself: what would indicate to me that I’m moving in the right direction?

Another great question to ask during this process is, “What would someone who already is a great team lead / JavaScript developer / dream job-holder be doing right now?”

Through this kind of questioning we can break our Big Goals down into more measurable next-steps, smaller results that indicate that we’re moving in the right direction:

  • Submit 10 pull requests to an open source JavaScript project before July
  • Create a survey for folks on my team so I can measure my progress month over month
  • Cold email 20 people with the job title I want and offer to buy them coffee

Results are the bricks. Your goals are the house.

Going from here to there, whether “there” is a personal goal (“Be Stronger”) or a business goal (“Get More Customers”), requires steps, steps that you can look at and check off a list and say to yourself, that’s done. What’s next? 

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