How to go from Big Vision to Action Plan when Goal Setting

Michael Ho, Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Graphite Ventures explains the necessity of getting through the “messy middle” of goal setting

Are you working on the right goals in your start-up?

It’s easy to chase ambitious goals that could change your company’s future. However, you won’t achieve them if you can’t translate the big desired outcome into tangible milestones that you have some control over.

Michael Ho, Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Graphite Ventures, calls this the “messy middle” of goal setting. In a video interview with MindFrame Connect, Ho shared more about why it’s so easy to fall into the “rabbit hole” of bad goal setting–and why it’s so critical to do it right.

Beware the rabbit hole and the infinity list

When start-up founders set goals, Ho said it’s pretty easy to set a big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG, for short) like doubling in size or reaching a certain revenue number.

But then something happens.

Entrepreneurs face an enormous amount of pressure to simply get sh*t done. As a result, founders will start with the BHAG and immediately jump to tactics—write a blog, make a cold call, pitch an investor, etc.

“It's too easy to get trapped down the rabbit hole of the infinity list of things to do,” said Ho.

What’s missing, said Ho, is a bit more of the “why” behind the decisions. So not just that you want to achieve a certain big goal or do a certain tactic—but why the goal matters in the first place and how that tactic supports the overall goal.

“It's really important for founders and leaders in companies to be very clear on what the objective is,” said Ho.

Two ways to navigate the “messy middle”

When stuck with your infinity list of tasks–all of which could help you reach your top-line goal–you need to prioritize it. If you don’t, said Ho, you “quickly become overwhelmed and everything seems like a good idea.”

What’s missing is the middle layer, or what Ho calls the “messy middle.”

In this layer, you do two things

  1. Contextualize the goal and the work so other people can understand it.
  2. Communicate why you are working on a specific task at a specific time (how it’s prioritized against the bigger goal).

“It's that middle layer on how you translate your high-level goals down to your low-level tasks,” said Ho.

Urgent versus important

One framework founders can use to flush out the messy middle is the “urgent versus important” concept. As shared by Wayne Cuervo, Director of Innovation and General Manager of Cisco’s Toronto Innovation Labs in an interview with BetaKit, the idea is that a startup should categorize all tasks that directly earn revenue as “urgent” and all tasks that support revenue growth as “important.”

Intuition might suggest only doing the “urgent” tasks so you make more revenue, especially if that’s your BHAG. However, Cuervo said that revenue efficiency and infrastructure are critical as well and shouldn’t be immediately written off.

“Pause for a second to say ‘What else could I do that would be more efficient in terms of output, more speedy in terms of completion, or what would be most satisfying to my customer at this time?’” said Cuervo to BetaKit.

Use themes to create boundaries

Another process founders can lean on is the thematic prioritization framework developed by McKinsey and Company.

The process has three steps:

1. Break down BHAGs into themes that provide guardrails—the circumstances under which you want to achieve your goals

For example, you might want to double revenue. But how do you want to accomplish that? A guardrail might be doubling revenue while improving operational efficiency and centring the customer.

You can often find these guardrails by “distilling” your goals through your company’s principles, mission, and vision.

2. Identify supporting initiatives in each thematic area

This means looking at your initiatives and seeing which will support both the end goal and the theme or guardrails you’ve set up.

For example, if you want to double revenue as a software company, you could theoretically sponsor a major sporting event for exposure to potential customers. But this could be highly risky. If you have a guardrail to improve operational efficiency or grow sustainably, you might try experimenting with smaller digital ads first to test if that channel is performing before going all-in.

3. Build initiative sequences

This step means figuring out the right order of initiatives so your efforts compound.

For example, if you know that writing blogs and making videos will both help your marketing efforts, think about which to do first. A video, for instance, could easily be repurposed into a blog post and you can cut up a single video into shorter clips for social sharing. This might be more efficient than writing a blog first and turning it into a video later, depending on your team’s resources or the other tactics on the list.

Goal setting is about a greater purpose

In the end, goal setting is not just about picking a hopeful destination; Ho said it’s actually about aligning resources and motivating your team. The latter of which is most important. As markets change and companies evolve, your precise initiatives might vary over time. However, people are more likely to stick around if they believe everyone is working together toward a bigger goal.

“People want to know that they're working on something that has a greater purpose,” said Ho.

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