Six ways to find great content for performance objectives

One of the worst things about being alive is having to write performance objectives.

As soul-destroying chores go, it’s right up there with ironing and DIY, but without the benefit of getting an ironed shirt or a wonky shelf at the end of it. All you get for your efforts is an “objective” which is usually just something measurable that no one else wants to do.

Indeed, most people’s objectives are about as demotivating to deliver as they were to write.

It needn’t be like this.

One problem (among many) is trying to find good content for objectives – this is especially true in repetitive jobs and after many years of trying to think of new things to do. It’s hard to keep coming up with anything remotely interesting or relevant, year after year, and Objectives Fatigue is likely to set in.

Objectives Fatigue (n) – having no ideas left for content to include in performance objectives

If this happens, objectives are then seen as a pointless nuisance, failing to add value to either the organization, the individual or the customer.

This post sets out six different ideas for getting good content for performance objectives.

… but I think it’s worth defining what we mean, because the omnipresent SMART – although useful – and a very clever acronym – tends to dominate the objectives space. This means that it crowds out any other factor not represented in SMART, and I think this misses some key points.

DMCOV: the new SMART!

The definition I use (that I made up using the TAB method*) is:

Performance Objective (n) – a statement of specific deliverables that is motivating and challenging to the individual, and adds value to the organization

I think this definition captures what’s important about an objective:

  • it’s about specific deliverables (not a general statement like “manage the team”)
  • it needs to be both motivating and challenging (so it doesn’t matter if it’s part of the day job, or not, as long as it’s motivating and challenging)
  • it must add value to the organization

Unfortunately DMCOV this doesn’t make an acronym as neat as SMART so it’s unlikely to catch on, but I think if you stick to these three rules, you’ll get a better objective than if you worry too much about what all the letters in SMART mean.

OMG! He didn’t say MEASURABLE!

I suspect people are feeling slightly faint because I haven’t banged on about the importance of objectives being measurable.

This is important, I don’t wish to underplay it, but I will post separately about that particular challenge.

Six ways to find great content for performance appraisals

Organization mission and values

Most organizations have missions and values that they genuinely aspire to, but then do very little to actually achieve. In most cases the only way they will ever get there is if the people do stuff differently, which people won’t do, unless they make a conscious effort to do so.

So there’s the opportunity: how can you better embody the values, or better strive for the mission, of the organization?

The problem is that missions and values are vague and don’t immediately lend themselves to “specific deliverables”, but that needn’t be an issue.

For example, when I worked at Virgin Atlantic Airways, the value “customer service” was used to create objectives around the idea of how we could better support our internal customers. Even values as ambiguous and wishy-washy as “honesty” can be used to think about how you could do your job in a more open and transparent way.

Top Down: the cascade

The usual way that content for objectives is found is by trickling down from above. This means that organizational goals are broken down into departmental objectives, which cascade to teams, and then on to individuals (so you should ask to see your line manager’s objectives).

That’s the theory – and as far as theory goes, it makes perfect sense. The problem comes from the time lag: it takes each layer of the hierarchy ages to sort out their own objectives before they can be cascaded, and then there is the quality leak: each objective is a subset of the one above, each layer is more distant and relying on the quality of the objectives that came before it – and, to bastardize Murphy’s law – whatever can be reduced to a spreadsheet, will be reduced to spreadsheet.

Bottom Up: you know what needs doing anyway

The only things that will cascade down are the big organizational or departmental objectives – but a lot of what can be done better is more localized than that. Most teams know what they need to do better, know where the gaps are, and many individuals have great ideas about what they’d like to see done differently.

This is a great source for objectives because it comes from the team themselves, and is about making a real tangible difference to their own – and their team’s – delivery.

Development needs and aspirations

Previous appraisals and development plans should have highlighted areas for improvement and areas of high performance.

If you know you need to get better at something, or you’re already great and want to maximize your potential in an area, then seek out opportunities to practise the skills and behaviours associated with it.

For example, if you want to be a project manager, create an objective around managing a project. If you want to get better at networking, create an objective around attending networking events. If you want to be the best customer service guru in town, use that as the basis for an objective.

Corporate contribution

Many organizations are happy for people to contribute completely separately from their day job, for example sitting on staff committees, organizing away days and charity events, driving awareness on green issues and recycling or whatever particular area most interests you.

What is the point of you? Why do they really bother paying your wages?

Asking this question is a great method for thinking differently about how jobs can contribute to an organizations – I call this the Why/How Method, which is probably not a very good name (the TAB approach to scientific research let me down a bit on this one).

First you ask why the job exists. You’re trying to understand the rationale behind the role, why bother with it?

For example:

Q: Why bother having a receptionist? Why don’t we just ask visitors to phone us when they get to the front desk?

A: That would look bad and be a pain for the team, and visitors would fret that no one was attending them – and it would impact the security team too

Q: So why is all that a problem?

A: Because we want to create a great first impression to visitors, and help staff by providing a filter and a professional service while their visitors wait, and leave security to concentrate on their own job not babysit visitors

Q: Why?

A: Isn’t it obvious? You’re becoming annoying now.

OK, when the answers start getting sarcastic, that’s when we’ve reached what is known as the PBA.

PBA (n) – Acronym to describe the point at which continuing to do something becomes really annoying (Point of Becoming Annoying)

So, if we have the reasons why we have receptionist:

  • “Because we want to create a great first impression to visitors and …
  • help staff by providing a filter and a professional service while their visitors wait …
  • and leave security to concentrate on their own job not babysit visitors

We can then ask how can we achieve this aim?

  • How could we provide an even better first impression for our organization?
  • How can we better support our colleagues when they have visitors to reception?
  • How can we better support the security team?

This should provide a whole new way of thinking about the role and how it can best contribute.

Some fun links:


* The TAB Method is an approach to understanding scientific truths that I tend to use a lot. It stands for Thinking About it on the Bus.

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