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How to Turn Long-Term Goals Into an Achievable Plan in 10 Steps

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July 17, 2018

The ability to achieve large or long-running goals is a hallmark of a great leader. One might assume it takes an elite level of skill or domain knowledge to accomplish most business goals but in my experience it hinges much more on the ability to plan, organize, execute, monitor, and adjust as time goes on. The key is treating a business goal as a "project" that warrants tracking what needs to happen by when.

Here, I'll walk through a simple framework that I've used in the past to achieve good results. First, I want to give credit to the book “Scaling Up” by Verne Harnish (formerly “Mastering the Rockefeller Habits”) from which much of this is derived.

Step 1: Define the Goal

There's nothing worse than pouring your efforts into a poorly crafted goal that was set up for failure from the beginning. Make sure it's a "SMART" goal (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound).

For example, let’s say that on Jan. 1 you decide that you want to focus efforts on increasing sales. You could take that and run with it (hire some more sales folks, push for referrals, new leads, etc.) but how will you evaluate your success (or lack thereof)? Maybe you did increase sales but enough to say you achieved your goal?

If the goal had been written as: "Increase our quarterly sales total by 20% by Q2 of this year," you would have two advantages over those with the first, vague goal. First, the specific numbers force you to give some thought to what the company really needs and why. Maybe you've done the math on the rest of the business for this year and, in order to support the growth you are shooting for, this is where sales needs to land. Second, the specific metrics allow you to determine whether or not you are on track for success.

This new goal is:

  • Specific: When framed this way, the goal is highly specific compared to just "increasing sales."
  • Measurable: 20% should be easy to measure. If you are normally doing $1M in sales each quarter, your Q2 sales number needs to be $1.2M+.
  • Achievable: Presumably Q2 was chosen because that will allow time for the sales cycle to play itself out for new leads that are found in Q1. Setting the goal for Q1 may seem preferable but may not be very realistic.
  • Relevant: Sales is a core part of the business. Thus, it is highly relevant.
  • Time-bound: The goal needs to happen by Q2.

Step 2: Define the Owner

A simple but important step. For best results, there should be a single owner who is accountable for achieving the goal. This doesn't mean that they need to do it on their own (they may actually do very little of the work required to achieve the goal) but they are the ones ensuring that the right things are happening.

Step 3: Define the Team

To accomplish the goal, it's crucial to have the right people involved and bought-in to the end result. For our sales example, I would expect the team to include the appropriate leaders from the Sales department, and possibly from Operations or Finance. The folks on your team will regularly meet to review progress and will perform the bulk of the actions necessary to work toward the goal.

Step 4: Identify Your Critical Number

You've already got a SMART goal but it's useful to distill that down to a single measurement. In our example, our "Critical Number" would be Q2 Total Sales > $1.2M. We would measure this as we go, relying on projections prior to Q2 and then actual sales numbers once we are into Q2.

Step 5: Identify Your Counterbalance Number(s)

It's important to exercise some caution with efforts to surge on one particular area of the business, as that has the potential to have negative consequences elsewhere if not done safely. For example, if our whole sales team surged on Q2 sales and neglected Q3, it would be counterproductive. Or, if we got so focused on juicing Q2 sales that we tossed junk leads into our sales funnel and ended up spending too much time on poor leads that didn't convert, it would be unhealthy. So, think about potential negative consequences and measurements that could identify if/when these things are happening. This will help to prevent surprises down the road. In our case, potential Counterbalance Numbers could include:

  • Q3 Projected Sales > $1.2M at the end of Q2
  • Funnel conversion by stage on Q2 Sales Opportunities is +/- 5% of our historical norm

Your goal is only accomplished if you succeed in hitting both your Critical Number and your Counterbalance Number(s).

Step 6: Brainstorm Activities

Next, get the team together and brainstorm potential activities that could move the needle on your Critical Number. Don't worry about who will do each of them just yet. It can often be useful to work backwards from the result, identifying smaller steps that need to happen to achieve the desired outcome. For our sales goal, we could say that we either need to be closing larger opportunities or more opportunities than we usually do (or both). Going after larger opportunities probably has a slew of activities behind it, as does going after an increased quantity of opportunities, both of which could be part of our brainstorming.

After a full brainstorm, review your activity list and trim it down. You only want the items you think will have the greatest impact on your Critical Number. Remember your Counterbalance Number(s) as you are reviewing your activity list. If any activities would significantly hurt a Counterbalance Number, you may want to hold off on incorporating them into your plan.

Once you have your final list, ask the team if they are confident they can accomplish the goal given this list of activities. If the answer isn't a resounding yes, then you either need more productive activities or your goal is too ambitious and may need to be reconsidered.

Step 7: Assign Owners for Each Activity

Next to each activity, put the name of the person who is responsible for the completion of that task—the owner. This person doesn't necessarily have to perform the task themselves but needs to ensure that it happens. For example, if one of our activities is adding five net new leads per week to our funnel, a Sales Manager may own that task but might challenge every rep on his team to add one net new lead per week in order to accomplish the task.

Step 8: Insert Activities Into a Weekly Plan

This is where the magic happens. So far, we've got a well-defined goal distilled down into a few measurements. We have an owner and a team to support it, and a bunch of things to do in order to accomplish it. Now, we need to execute.

To ensure we are on track as we go, it's useful to make a week-by-week plan. I've found that the simplest method is to make a table with a row per week and list off all the things that need to happen that week. You can then check them off as you go and determine as a group whether the project is still on track that week or not.

Example (using Atlassian Confluence):
log term goals 2

Step 9: Identify Incremental Milestones

Our assumption thus far is if we keep up with our weekly activities, we will achieve our goal at the end. However, if we want to have confidence that we are on track, we should think about the milestones we'll be hitting along the way and record those in our weekly plan. For instance, if our goal is to do $1.2M in sales in Q2, then our incremental milestones may be focused on building the sales projection (based on target close dates, sale amounts, and chance to close numbers) prior to Q2 starting. Then, we can focus on actual incremental sales milestones throughout Q2. Example:

  • Q2 sales projection > $800k by Jan 31st
  • Q2 sales projection > $1M by Feb 28th
  • Q2 sales projection > $1.2M by Mar 31st
  • Q2 total sales > $400k by Apr 30th
  • Q2 total sales > $800k by May 31st
  • Q2 total sales > $1.2M by Jun 30th (end goal)

You can highlight these milestones right in your weekly plan and record actual results vs the milestone targets. If you miss a milestone target, that's a good time to adjust your upcoming activities to try to catch up to where you need to be. Note that it can be useful to have incremental milestones for both your Critical Number and your Counterbalance Number(s).

Step 10: Accountability Rhythms

Last but not least, all of this planning will be for nought if the team goes back to their day-to-day and forgets all about it! At a minimum, the team should be coming together once a week to review the results for that week against the weekly plan and determine whether they are on track to achieve the goal, or if it is at risk. Usually, this just comes down to whether the desired activities were accomplished, and whether you are making progress toward your milestones.

The best results are achieved if the team can briefly huddle up daily. Think of it as a quick (five min.) "standup" meeting to discuss results from the prior day and what you will be doing today related to this project. Given the nature of these types of large goals, sometimes your status for a day will be "nothing" and that's ok. However, throughout the week if it's becoming clear that the activities aren't going to get accomplished and folks are not carving out time to get them done, it's time to re-evaluate priorities. Usually, these goals are agreed upon as "the most important thing" for the business, and thus warrant the explicit time investment and prioritization required to accomplish them.


These steps are designed to break the goal down into manageable actions, track progress in a data-driven fashion, get the right people involved, and hold everyone accountable. They also make every attempt to keep the goal front-of-mind and avoid putting it on the back burner in favor of everyday tasks. Following this formula should give you every advantage when trying to accomplish something big!


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