Are your goals specific enough to change behavior?

by Burl Stamp

Part 2 in Our Series: A Smarter Approach to S.M.A.R.T. Goals

In last week’s blog, I outlined a smarter way for managers to approach S.M.A.R.T. goals. Designed to boost results rather than just improve goal-writing, our model emphasizes how leaders can better use goals to focus their team’s efforts and deliver superior outcomes:

Healthcare leadership with S.M.A.R.T Goals

While there are many variations on the original S.M.A.R.T. goals model, the “S” almost always stands for “specific.” Writing a SMART goal that is specific means that all aspects of the goal are clearly defined and that it answers the standard 5 W’s (who, what, when, where and why). But even when a well-written goal is specific, it still usually focuses on what you want the end result to be, not on how you will get there.

In their 2012 book The Four Disciplines of Execution, authors Sean Covey, Chris McChesney and Jim Huling described the importance of setting both “lagging” and “leading” goals to change performance. Lagging goals are the ones we usually set that look in the rear-view mirror and measure results (for example, our operating margin last quarter or quality scores last year). Leading goals, on the other hand, target specific predictive behaviors that will lead to better performance.

An example clarifies the power in setting leading vs. lagging goals. A strong, specific lagging goal for an individual nursing care team might be:

To improve patient and family communication, increase “staff worked together as a team” score on patient experience survey from 78.5 to 81.0 by end of third quarter.

While this goal does flag for staff that this is a priority, it does little to help them collectively understand what needs to change to achieve the goal. Here is where a leading goal is beneficial:

To improve patient and family communication, fully implement team bedside report for every shift by end of first quarter. Achieve 100% compliance for all patients by end of second quarter.

Specific goals move performance

The specificity of a well-structured leading goal helps clarify practice changes that will be necessary to achieve a lagging goal. This approach also helps each member of the team better understand their personal responsibilities in achieving better performance.

Healthcare excellence with MyTeam App

The “Align” module in our new MyTEAM® application makes goal setting, tracking and sharing simpler – and more powerful – for leaders.

In summary, to set specific goals that move performance, leaders should:

Set leading goals

Set leading goals the help individual staff members and the team as a whole understand the changes in practice and behavior that will improve results

Track, report, discuss

Track, report and discuss as a team performance against these goals every month

Set companion lagging goals

Establish companion lagging goals to ensure leading indicators are achieving the desired results

In our next post, we’ll look at why making goals “meaningful” is so important to achieving success.


Interested in setting specific S.M.A.R.T. goals with the MyTeam® application?
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