Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
May 02, 2018 · 11 min read

5 Key Goal Setting Exercises for High-Performing Engineering Teams (from Google, LinkedIn, DropBox, and more)

5 Goal Setting Exercises for High-Performing Engineering Teams

“Unless we have a purpose there is no reason why individuals should try to cooperate together at all or why anyone should try to organize them,”

wrote legendary management consultant Lyndall F. Urwick in the 1964 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Alright. What are we doing quoting a more than 50-year-old article in a post about goal-setting in 2018?

Well, because despite all our technological and societal advances, we still seem to be struggling with this exact issue.

As the authors of The Strategy-Focused Organization found, a mere 7% of employees today fully understand their company’s business strategies and what’s expected of them in order to help achieve company goals.

Goal setting is a serious problem. Once your company or team expands beyond a one-room operation, making sure everyone has goals that align with the company’s purpose and vision is no small task.

It’s easy enough for marketing or sales teams to set goals like “Acquire X users” or “Double email list.” But for technical teams? When you’re in charge of your core product and need to react quickly to changes, you can’t stick to the same old static goals.

So, how do the best technical teams in the world with products bringing in billions in revenue keep their eyes on the end goal while staying nimble and agile? Let’s find out.

Goals are the reason your team wants to come into work every morning

First off, there’s more to goal setting than just telling your team what they need to do.

When done properly, goals aren’t just a to-do list, but a direct line to your company’s vision and purpose.

Think about this stat for a second: FitBit users take 43% more steps than non-users. Why? Well, it turns out that just having insight into their data and progress towards their personal goals is enough to get people to put in extra miles every day.

Imagine what would happen if every member of your entire company knew for a fact that the work they were doing was moving the whole organization forward. Actually, you don’t have to imagine.

Studies have shown that committing to a goal can help improve employee performance and help build a sense of togetherness and motivation across your team. But more specifically, research has shown that setting challenging and specific goals can further enhance your team’s engagement in attaining those goals.

Setting proper goals for your technical team doesn’t just keep your team and devs aligned with company goals. It leads to higher performance, a sense of happiness and ownership, and ultimately, success across the board.

Proper goal setting throws grease on the wheels. It makes your team run smoother than Vin Diesel’s head. And with a bit of work up front, it’s not that hard to master.

Goal-setting exercise 1: Effective goal-setting starts at the top and cascades down

If you want to set effective goals for your company, you need to know exactly what goes into that goal.

It’s not enough to say “We want to do X.” You need to clearly define what X is, why it’s important, how you’re going to get there, and what your expectations are of everyone helping you reach it.

To do this, I like to think of the goal-setting process like a house of cards.

At the very top of the stack is your company vision. It’s got the best spot and is (or should be) extremely visible to everyone. But it’s also vulnerable. If anything shifts too much at the bottom, the whole thing collapses.

So what supports your company vision? Goals (as well as sub-goals, objectives, and strategies.)

Goals are the execution of your company vision.

They’re the actions that translate high-level business objectives into actionable steps so everything your team does is pushing you in the right direction.

As former SVP of Product at LinkedIn, Deep Nishar, explains:

“Vision without operational excellence is just a dream. Great enterprises marry a sense of purpose with amazing operational excellence and put processes in place for how they will achieve that vision.”

Or, as Don Sull, Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management explains, along with other factors, goals are the missing link between strategy and execution. They provide a wireframe for your company, giving a clear view of what every individual’s role is in getting that card safely to the top of the stack.

Goals: The missing link between strategy and execution

The problem is that getting all these pieces to work together and have visibility into them is a challenge. Teams get siloed. Communication slows down. And all of a sudden the goals you set aren’t in line with the company vision. But as a team leader, you can change this for the better.

“As the team and org scales, communication of your values, the stories that illustrate those values, and the context behind the decisions being made are so important,”

explains Kelly Graziadei who led product and marketing teams at Facebook for 7 years.

“But communication often falls to the bottom of the priority list. As you scale your teams this must be front and center. With communication comes stories, priorities, and context. Context gives meaning to the work, creates alignment, and gives people the power and confidence to make decisions. Context and good goal setting is critical.”

It all starts with communication around what kind of goals you’re setting, your culture of success, and then tying individual objectives to larger team goals and your company vision.

Vision without operational excellence is just a dream.

Goal-setting exercise 2: Get clear about your culture of goal-setting

Before we get into what types of goals you should set for your engineering team and how to set them, we need to answer a couple of questions about the kind of goals you’re setting in general.

This is all about your company’s goal setting culture. How do you set goals, what types of goals do you set, and how do you know what success of those goals looks like?

1. What types of goals are you setting as a company?

Not every company or even individual treats goals the same way.

But in order for you to work together and support the system that will get you there, everybody needs to know where the goal line is. In other words, when you set goals, are you setting goals that are:

  1. Moonshots (aka, pretty damn impossible to hit)
  2. Pretty hard (but you’ll hit them 70% of the time)
  3. Slightly more than your current skills and resources (80-95% chance you’ll hit them)
  4. A walk in the park (you’ll hit them with a 20-hour work week)

It might not seem important to know this right now, but think about this for a second: Let’s say Engineer A thinks you’re setting goals that are in bucket D—nice and easy. While Engineer B thinks you’re setting goals in Bucket B—pretty hard. When it’s time to check in and see how everyone has progressed, there’s going to be all sorts of issues and not nice words being thrown around.

To keep everyone on an even playing field, you need to know what the field looks like. Ultimately, your culture will determine this. So make a decision and communicate it until it becomes a part of your company DNA.

2. What does success look like?

Goal hit = good. Goal missed = bad. Right?

Maybe. It depends. Just like you need to define what types of goals your company is going after, you also need to know how you deal with meeting or missing those goals.

Here’s a few of the options you might pick, as explained by Pinterest BlackOps Engineering Manager, Marty Weiner:

  1. You MUST hit your goal!
  2. Strive hard to meet your goal. Big kudos if you do. Discuss what could have been better if you don’t.
  3. Goals are just guidelines. No big deal.

Just reading those out, you can probably see how not being on the same page could be more than a little awkward for your team. Communicating what success looks like helps keep your team aligned and motivated.

No one likes to feel like they failed. And there’s a big difference in the way you approach a problem (and its associated goal) if you think it’s a “MUST hit” versus just a guideline.

Goal setting exercise 3: Use OKRs to choose the right goals for your engineering team

Now that you understand the playing field for how you’re setting goals:

  1. You know they need to relate to and support the company’s vision
  2. You know what type of goals you’re setting
  3. You know what success looks like for them

The next step is to translate that company vision into the actionable goals your engineering team can work towards every single day.

A good method for doing this is to use OKRs—or, Objectives and Key Results.

First popularized by Intel CEO Andy Grove, OKRs have been used by major tech companies like Google, Amazon, Adobe, Dropbox, Slack, and more to align higher-level company objectives with the results that each individual team member does to help get there.

In Grove’s famous manual High Output Management, he introduces the idea of OKRs by asking 2 questions:

  1. Where do I want to go?
  2. How will I know when I’m getting there?

Your Objective is the thing you’re working towards. It should be qualitative, inspirational, and tied to company goals. Think something like: Make our homepage the best on-site experience. (As a general rule, Weiner and the leadership at Google suggest setting 3–5 personal OKRs for any given quarter. Any more and you have the potential to distract from what really needs to get done.)

Your Key Results are the metrics you need to keep track of to see if you’re making progress. A key result should be qualitative and specify a measurement window. For example, lower site load speed 50% in 1 month. You might have 2 or 3 Key Results for each Objective.

One of the main things to point out about OKRs is that they’re supposed to be difficult.

Your objective shouldn’t necessarily be something you can hit in a couple weeks or even a quarter without really killing it. Instead, a good rule of thumb is that “success” of an Objective is around 60–70% complete. This is also why it’s so important that you have a shared understanding of the types of goals you’re setting. If you have teams that are collaborating, they each need to expect that the other will only be hitting that 60-70% and act accordingly.

As LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, describes them:

“OKRs are something you want to accomplish over a specific period of time that leans towards a stretch goal rather than a stated plan. It’s something where you want to create greater urgency, greater mindshare.”

For your engineering team, this means setting goals as a team and then letting each individual set their own Objectives that will help move you closer to hitting those goals.

If you’re using Agile or Scrum project management, OKRs are still a great option. Not only do they ensure that you’re moving quickly and regularly re-assessing where you’re heading. But they help clarify what success is beyond just a product feature by tying it to a larger business goal.

Success is not checking a box. Success is having an impact.

This is where you really start to see how Objectives support your company vision and goals.

While your mission, vision, and goals state the change you want your company to make, Objectives are the devices used to measure the success or failure of those efforts.

So, if your objective needs to be measurable, the obvious question is: How do we measure it?

Goal setting exercise 4: Use MMOM metrics to measure your goal progress

There’s all sorts of ways you can track your progress on Objectives, but a good test is to ask your mom. Sorry, I meant MMOM (Meaningful, Measurable, Operational, Motivational).

MMOM metrics

Is your metric meaningful?

Your metric needs to contribute or relate to your business objective in some pretty obvious way. Or at least in a way that a lot of people can agree on. So, if your overall objective is to increase user experience on your site, it probably makes sense to track something like site load speed.

Where you’ll run into issues is when you have a metric that is closely related, but not perfect. As Pinterest’s Engineering Manager Marty Weiner explains:

“Does ‘number of times content is flagged’ meaningfully measure bad experiences? Perhaps, but you’d prefer to know ‘number of times somebody has a bad experience’ (which can be impossible to measure).”

Is your metric measurable?

You should be able to measure your metric on a regular basis. Pretty basic, right? So, in our site load speed example, we can A/B test the time before and after changes to see if we’ve made a positive change.

Even if it feels like you can’t measure the metric, there’s probably a way you can. It may not be perfect, but starting with anything will help you push forward and look for better ways. Don’t throw out a metric just because it isn’t obviously measurable off the bat.

Is your metric operational?

How quickly can you see the effects of your change on your objective? Changing the background color of your homepage is highly operational. You can do it today and see if it makes a change in a couple hours. Measuring how many people are returning to your site after 30 days, isn’t quite as operational.

The faster your metric responds to changes you make, the faster you can iterate. However, this doesn’t just mean you should pick the highly operational ones. There’s a tradeoff that depends on their meaningfulness. It’s good to mix it up and include one highly operational one for your team, and, separately, one less operational one that’s more meaningful to the rest of the company.

Is your metric motivational?

How much do you or your team actually want to move the needle on this metric? You’re working with people here, and people respond to motivation. If you know your team (or yourself), you should be able to say with some level of confidence whether or not this objective is motivational.

And if it’s not? Usually this can be remedied by tying the metric to some bigger goal or purpose (Remember, it all works together!) People are motivated by all sorts of different things: Mastery, prestige, challenge, snacks. Find what works for them and try to connect the metric to it.

Your metrics will dictate your timeline and when you check in on your progress

Setting ambitious goals and objectives (remember, OKRs should be difficult!) means you probably won’t hit them in the initial time frame you give yourself. So the question becomes how much can you move that metric in that moment?

Some metrics should cover the whole quarter, such as maintenance metrics. While some metrics, especially covering areas of fast improvement, could be unmotivational if the window is too long.

“Choose goals that you can track daily or weekly,” says Facebook’s Kelly Graziadei. “You can only move as fast and change course as the speed of your feedback. Communicate about goals, progress, best practices, and wins early and often.”

A good rule of thumb is to look for metrics and key results that you can check in on after a minimum of two weeks. Any shorter and there’s usually too much noise.

Goal-setting exercise 5: Make sure team goals and individual career goals connect

To this point, we’ve only been talking about setting team goals for your engineering team. But on a personal level, effective goal-setting also addresses your team member’s individual trajectories.

We all want to do work that will bring us the things we crave: prestige, recognition, promotions. And treating individuals just like cogs in a machine means they’re going to go looking for something better.

“When you're a technical manager, your job is mostly about humans,” says Jessica McKellar, co-founder of chat startup Zulip that was acquired by DropBox. “There are two things you should always be thinking about: People's day-to-day and their year-to-year.”

This could mean setting goals around learning or getting better at new programming languages and platforms. Or understanding a team member’s areas of interests, and making sure their day-to-day tasks line up with them.

You want to be leveling up everyone on your team all the time. Execution will follow.

What goal setting for engineering teams looks like in practice

Ok, let’s do a quick recap of everything before looking at some goal-setting examples for technical teams:

Goals cascade down from your company vision, while OKRs are quicker, allowing you to change course and redefine team-level goals in an Agile way.

So, what does this all look like in practice?

Let’s say our team is responsible for a user-facing site like a blog or marketing page, and we want to improve the user experience.

Our Objective of improving performance ties directly to our goal of creating a better user experience. While our Key Results address availability and performance/speed—two factors that directly tie into our Objective.

On top of that, our Key Results also tell a pretty good MMOM story.

They’re meaningful as they tie to our Objective and help us towards our ultimate goal of creating a better experience and bringing in more customers.

They’re also pretty easily measured as we have tools that can easily benchmark load time and availability and see how our improvements and optimizations are helping.

Operationally, the first Key Result is measured over a few weeks, which might be a little long. However, by adding in a second Key Result that isn’t measured over a longer period of time, your engineer has something to measure and iterate on quickly.

Lastly, site performance affects everything from conversion rates to SEO, so it’s a pretty motivational goal to work towards!

Goal setting is important for all parts of your business. But when it comes to goal setting for your engineering team, you need to be especially diligent in your process. Goals are a great opportunity to create a shared vision. To push the purpose of your company. And to challenge the talented team you’ve surrounded yourself with.

Make sure everyone knows how and why you’re setting goals. Tie individual goals and objectives to your company vision. And make sure everyone has metrics that keep them motivated and inspired to work every single day.