In 2020, Avoid the 6 Goal-Setting Mistakes that Kill Execution

We constantly hear, “Our problem is not a lack of strategy—we know WHAT to do, we just aren’t doing IT!” Much of the frustration associated with execution can be traced back to the way goals initially are set.

For 18 years, my team at Franklin Covey and I have worked with more than 4,000 organizations on setting and executing strategic goals. Execution is often frustrating, even for the most capable leaders. We constantly hear, “There’s no shortage of good ideas around here!” or “Our problem is not a lack of strategy—we know WHAT to do, we just aren’t doing IT!”Much of the frustration associated with execution can be traced back to the way goals initially are set. Here are six common goal-setting mistakes that make execution more difficult than it needs to be:   

1. Painting everything with the same brush.

 As leaders we are responsible for many types of outcomes and yet most just use one word, “goal,” to describe them all. A typical leader’s list of goals might include a project deadline, the hiring of two new people, four performance standards,an outcome associated with a corporate initiative, and even some cultural issues such as “improved communication.” To the leader, all of these “goals” feel critical, but the list in its entirety feels complex and overwhelming. And that’s a bad recipe for goal achievement. 


Sort your “goals” into three categories: 

  • The first category is “Stroke-of-the-Pen,” those outcomes that require either money or leadership authority (maybe yours, maybe someone else’s). For instance, the leader might implement a new compensation system, purchase new machinery, or change an existing procedure. 
  • The second category is “Life-Support,” which contains all of the critical standards that must be met to sustain your current operation. These include Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), which should be in the form of a metric; for instance, a customer satisfaction score, the number of new clients, production metrics, or revenue numbers. 
  • The third category is “Breakthrough,” which is an outcome you believe is of vital importance, but is also at great risk of not being achieved. The “Breakthrough” goal (what we call a “Wildly Important Goal” in my book, “The 4 Disciplines of Execution), usually will come from one of the other two categories, and almost always will require a great deal of human engagement to be achieved. 

These categories allow you to look at your world through a lens that shows how things are executed. Fundamentally “Stroke-of-the-Pen” goals will be executed differently from “Life-Support” goals, which also are executed differently from “Breakthrough” goals. Even more importantly, this allows you to see where you need to apply disproportionate energy in order to create a breakthrough. The following five mistakes (2-6) listed below will apply only to goals in the “Breakthrough” category. 

2. Creating too many goals that require a breakthrough.

Doing so demands a massive change in behavior. These are the kind of goals that will only be achieved if the people doing the work are committed to the outcome. Organizations have a very limited capacity for how many of these breakthrough goals they can work on at once. For example, for years you have wanted your team to create a set of training modules for front-line technicians. This would have a significant impact on quality and the customer experience, but it’s a lot of work and the goal always gets lost amidst all the other goals and a whirlwind of distractions. 

We advise our clients that front-line teams only have one breakthrough goal at a time, in addition to their day job (the “Life-Support” goals) and all the other inevitable changes that might occur (“Stroke-of-the-Pen” goals). Try to achieve two or more “Breakthrough” goals at the same time with the same team and you will find your team losing focus as the day job takes over.   

3. Mistaking a concept for a target.

The concept of “Lead the world in space exploration” was NASA’s goal in 1959, but achieving it wasn’t going well. Even though there were eight metrics under that goal at the time, NASA was not executing on any of them. In 1962, that goal was changed to the target of “Put a man on the moon and return him safely home by the end of the decade.” That goal changed the course of human history. Your breakthrough goal needs to take the form of a target. It needs a starting line, a finish line, and a deadline.

It is difficult to execute on a concept. We see many strategic plans that are full of concepts like “world class,” followed by a series of metrics that no one in the organization can even remember. When NASA defined their man-on-the-moon target, not only did accountability improve, but so did morale and engagement. It was as though NASA had thrown the “GAME-ON” switch. As you define your breakthrough goal ask yourself, “What is the single best measure of success for this goal?” and then determine the starting line, the finish line, and the deadline. 

4. Failing to balance impact and feasibility.

Leaders continually ask us our opinions about “stretch goals.” One leader described these as “shooting for the stars but being happy with the moon.” While our work on execution revolves around landmark achievements, we do not subscribe to a “shoot-for-the-stars” approach. 


We encourage leaders to look for the “sweet spot” between impact and feasibility. Whenever we see a high level of personal engagement around a goal, the goal meets both the criteria of being “impactful” and “feasible.” In other words, people feel like they are playing a high-stakes game (“impactful”) and they also feel they are playing a winnable game (“feasible”). When we first took note of this, we were not aware that in the 1960s noted business psychologist Fredrick Hertzberg had drawn the same conclusion. Inspired by Hertzberg’s work, authors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, in their book, “The Power of Small Wins,” wrote, “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

Mistakes 5 and 6 apply to leaders of leaders.

5. Declaring the war, but not the battles.

After NASA set the goal for “man on the moon by the end of the decade,” one of the chief engineers asked the question, “What are the fewest battles necessary to win this war?” We have found that this is the most important question a senior leader can ask when working on a breakthrough goal that requires the involvement of many teams. The question is more than 1,000 years old and originally derives from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” Countries (like organizations) have limited resources and have to be able to focus those resources against the fewest number of targets. However, for most creative, ambitious leaders, this way of thinking is not intuitive. It is more natural to think, “That is everything we need to do?” 

NASA answered the question by defining three battles: one for navigation (the moon isn’t standing still), one for propulsion (25,000 mph is required to break Earth’s gravity), and one for life-support (we need to keep the astronauts alive). The battles, once defined, allow the various teams within the organization to decide how they would contribute to their success. 

6. Pushing instead of pulling.

Do you let the leaders who work for you set their own goals? In truth, the leaders who work for you probably won’t get much of a say in setting either their “Stroke-of-the-Pen” or “Life-Support” goals. It’s natural that you or your superiors will determine goals associated with budgets, sales targets, and financial investments. 

But when you have a breakthrough goal, the leaders who work for you need to be much more involved in choosing their goals, which will drive your goal. Ask those leaders what their contributing breakthrough goal should be, as opposed to assigning it. Veto (if you have to), but don’t dictate. If your “Breakthrough” goal is well-defined, we believe your leaders will define theirs so that you can hit yours. If they do not, that is what the veto is for. It might sound like this: “I can see that you want to go after an increase in subscriptions as your goal, but how is that going to help us hit our client retention goal? Why don’t you take another crack at this?” Taking the extra time to allow your leaders to determine their “Breakthrough” goal can yield tremendous results. Too often, as leaders, we expect commitment from those who work for us, but what we actually have asked for is compliance.

We hope that knowing these six, common goal-setting mistakes that make execution more difficult will help you to achieve your goals in 2020. 

For more information on executing on your strategic goals to create breakthrough results, download our guide:

Chris McChesney is the global practice leader of execution at FranklinCovey and co-author of The Wall Street Journalbestseller, “The 4 Disciplines of Execution,” currently the best-selling book on strategy execution. For 18 years he and his team have worked with more than 4,000 organizations on setting and executing strategic goals.