An introduction to balancing ambition with setting realistic goals


Whether you’re creating long-term goals for the business or motivating your team to reach monthly targets, keeping your goals attainable is key to achieving them. Regular goals are the most realistic ones, with companies that set them each quarter reporting a 31 per cent increase in revenue compared to companies doing it annually.

Working with your workforce can also keep your goals realistic – 76 per cent of employees that are actively involved in the planning and decision stages of goal setting know what role they will play in achieving them. This will lead to a more motivated workforce and a higher success rate.

This guide outlines some of the main factors that influence goal setting, common mistakes people make and quick wins for making your goals ambitious but realistic. The next step will be to use our action plan to direct your change and improvement.

What factors influence how you approach goal setting?

The ability to focus on your own business

When it comes to setting strong, achievable goals, business leaders have to be able to focus on the needs of their own business. It’s easy to get caught up with what the competition is doing, but competitor activity shouldn’t provide the foundation for your company’s goals.

Decide on goals that will contribute towards your vision for the business and genuinely make a difference to your team. It might be improving internal communication because employees requested it or landing a specific client that you want to work with.

It’s important to make your goals relevant to your own ambitions, not someone else’s.

The capacity of your team

Consider what else will be happening around the time you will be working towards this set of goals. The only way a goal will be attainable is if you can dedicate the required amount of time and energy to it.

Think about other objectives you’re working towards and potential disruptions or challenges that might pull employees’ attention elsewhere. How would this affect your likelihood of achieving your goals?

Each goal needs to be factored into the wider business strategy, otherwise it will never be realistic.

The resources you use

Seeking external advice is a great way to sense check your business plans. Peers, mentors and experts can help you assess the direction you’re taking, provide objective opinions and share their own experiences.

However, when you’re setting goals for your business, think carefully about the resources you’re using.

If you’re only getting advice from people who have limited experience or can’t connect with the stage your business is at, you won’t be getting the right kind of guidance and the goals you set may not be relevant.

Your measurements for success

One of the key factors in setting goals is working out how you can actually measure your success against it.

Part of your approach needs to be about short-term targets. This is how you will work out whether or not something is overly ambitious or achievable. By creating small milestones, you will quickly be able to see whether you’re likely to reach your target or not.

If you have one long-term goal, you could spend months working towards it with no idea how close you are to actually reaching it. Short-term targets will give you a better understanding of how realistic your goal is and you can refine it along the way.

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“Don’t be afraid to break with tradition when it comes to setting goals and corresponding with your team. Keep a flexible outlook as you look for the best solution for your own business. What works for one company might not work for another. As a small team handling multiple ambitious projects, staff time is very valuable for us, so quick and versatile target-setting works better than lengthy meetings.”

Lisa Forde, founder of Dotty About Paper

The cold hard facts

How can you make goals more attainable for your team?

Keeping goals realistic means tailoring them to the people they apply to. If you’re setting targets for your staff, give them real-time feedback – 94 per cent of employees would rather you let them know how they’re performing on a regular basis.

Common mistakes when setting goals

Assuming ambitious goals push employees to work harder

Being ambitious is great – it’s the driving force of many businesses. One of the biggest mistakes when it comes to setting goals, however, is assuming that sky-high targets will motivate employees to work harder.

While a certain amount of ambition can motivate employees to push themselves, setting a goal that’s too ambitious will deflate morale. If you can’t see that you’re making real progress towards a goal, what’s the point in trying?

Setting too many goals

While it’s natural to have lots of things you want to achieve, it’s crucial that you’re selective with your goals.

Setting too many goals at once will result in you – and your staff – multitasking to try and work towards them all at once. When your attention is being pulled in so many different directions, it’s likely you’ll do a mediocre job at lots of tasks rather than a great job at one.

Choose your goals carefully and stick to a realistic number.

Find out how other leaders like you are using the SMART methodology to set effective goals for their organisations.

Read their stories

Not including employees in the process

When it comes to understanding what goals are realistic, it helps to include the people who will be working to achieve them.

A common mistake is deciding on goals behind closed doors, then announcing them to the team. Your employees can provide valuable feedback that will shape goals and make them feel more grounded, so ask for their input wherever possible.

Failing to include staff in the goal-setting process can also make it harder to explain what you’re trying to accomplish and get them invested in working towards it.

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“Be sure to communicate your goals to both your team and your board. Make it very clear what they should and shouldn’t expect: what the deliverables are, why they matter and how you expect each member of the team to contribute to them. Empower your team by giving them support and space – they need to be able to act on their passion and be motivated about the business and projects they’re working on.”

Polina Montano, COO of Job Today

The cold hard facts

What impact does setting realistic performance goals have on employee turnover?

Gallup research found that employees who strongly agree their performance goals are realistic are 1.6 times as likely to plan to stay at their business for at least another year (compared with those who do not strongly agree their goals are realistic).

Quick wins for setting ambitious but realistic goals

Break down each goal into smaller steps

Once you’ve got a goal in mind, arrange a meeting or workshop with your team to develop a strategy for how you’re going to achieve it. Create a timeline and look at what steps need to be completed by what dates in order to reach your goal.

Consider resources or extra support your team might need, as well as challenges they might face. Have an alternative plan in place should these arise.

This session will provide another sense check that your goals are realistic, plus help to secure buy-in from employees.

Set a minimum baseline for ambitious goals

If you’re setting a goal that feels borderline too ambitious, set a minimum baseline – essentially, the minimum amount you’ll do to work towards your goal each day or week.

Having a minimum baseline can make ambitious goals feel more manageable. If the goal is to make a certain number of sales in the month, the minimum baseline might be to make six phone calls to clients per day.

Once you – or your employees – are comfortable making those phone calls, you can increase the amount of calls you make and move closer towards that long-term goal.

Take the time to reflect on goals you didn’t meet

Some goals are hard to achieve, for whatever reason – maybe you ran out of time or encountered an issue you hadn’t predicted.

While it’s natural to want to move on quickly from failures, take the time to reflect on the experience. Speak to other managers and staff who worked towards that goal and consider how you could be better prepared next time.

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“Just commit to something and do it. If it doesn’t work out, learn from it, whether that’s learning in terms of skills development or more realistic target setting.”

Guy Hacking, co-founder of Tribe

The cold hard facts

How can involving employees in goal setting improve engagement?

Now you’ve learnt about some of the factors that impact how you balance ambition with realistic goals, use our action plan to direct your improvement efforts.