Improvement goals – verbs, adverbs or adjectives?

It is a new year and so I am returning to my blog, which has been neglected for a couple of months. Perhaps I should set myself a typical goal to keep me focused, something like

  • Write 2 blog articles a month; or
  • Publish 2 blog articles by the end of February 2022

These are action based goals and the outcomes are pretty clear. They might even be smart goals because they are pretty specific and they can be measured. In fact I can even predict that I will be 50% complete in attaining the second goal by the time anyone reads this article.

Action goals are cool

The two goals I am considering are both in the format “Verb-Noun,” as in “I will DO SOMETHING”. This is a commitment to action and it is a pretty good starting point.

I will call them Action Goals for the purpose of discussion.

I could make them more complicated by adding some more SMART bits by making sure the goals are Relevant (or does the R stand for Realistic) or Actionable (or is that achievable). However, I know where that leads – lot’s of pondering with no greater clarity of my commitment.

There are two ways that I think I can make myself more likely to follow through on my goals though.

The first is to be time based. Which of these do you think I am more likely to follow through on:

  • I will write more blog articles this year
  • I will write 2 blog articles per month
  • I will write 2 blog articles per month every month between now and July
  • I will write 4 blog articles by the end of February
  • After I finish this article, I will write 1 blog article by the end of January.

For me, the last example is the best. I like small commitments and for some reason I like to commit to and end date. On this note “Every month between now and July” is OK but it just feels harder and more likely to lead to me falling off the wagon. I prefer to set a goal for January and then set a new goal once I hit (or miss) that one.

So there you have it – I commit to write one more blog article (not counting this one) before the end of January.

The second thing that helps me to act on my goals is to attach a reward to them. If I complete my goal, I will get some cool reward:

  • When I publish my next article, then I will buy myself a new book;
  • Once I publish an article I can check the stats for my blog without feeling guilty;
  • Regularly publishing a blog article means that I can call myself a writer and brag about having a blog older than my daughter. It also means I am a disciplined person who follows through – call me a hero, but it is just who I am; or
  • For each blog post that I make, I will get myself a coffee and a muffin.

I read somewhere that attaching a reward puts you in a positive frame of mind and helps you overcome the stress of having to complete something. However the type and value of the reward is unimportant. It could be an overseas holiday or just ticking a box on a todo list; and it could be intrinsic or extrinsic. What matters is that there is something good that will come from the reward or some reason that the goal matters to you.

Improvement goals

Now that I am confident that I will achieve my goal and that I will be rewarded for it, I guess 2022 will be a good year.

But wait – action does not always lead to improvement. Am I happy that publishing more blogs will be better than publishing less? Maybe I should scrap these skimpy articles and publish a book, or maybe I would gain as much joy from reading as I do writing.

Plus – who benefits from this action? Will it lead to lasting change or just be a one off highlight of a single day. Will the benefits of my publishing fade away even before I finish the last crumbs of my muffin?

These are weighty questions that are probably much to weighty for a simple commitment of publishing 2 blog articles.

At work though, sometimes it is better to commit to action (run a workshop, set up a training course) and sometimes it is better to commit to changing something.

If – then goals

Sometimes attaching my action to an improvement is enough. For example I might write my goal as

  • I believe that if I can publish two blog articles then this will contribute to my personal brand which is sorely in need of some attention; or
  • In order to keep me sane during a pandemic, I will focus some energy on writing and reading, because they bring me joy. In order to do this, I will read at least one science fiction novel this month and publish one article on my blog.

I can now see where my action fits in and whether it is helping me to attain some loftier purpose. I like to do this at work because I get caught up in so many discussions about how we will capture some metric (say velocity) or hold some meeting, but I don’t really see what it is meant to achieve, or worse, I fear that the goal will transmute somehow into a pointless endeavour because we will lose sight of it’s original purpose.

A different take

Action based goals are clear and it is easy to measure them – they are done or they are not done. However, sometimes we want to change the quality of something or we want to strive to make the world a better place, while not being clear on every action we will take.

This is where a different approach to goals can be handy and it comes from a old school approach called “GQM – Goal, Question, Metric”.

Firstly, we do not commit to take an action, as such, but rather to change something. In other words we move from “Do-something” to “Change-something-about something”. For example:

  • Rather than “Write a blog article”, I would “Write better blog articles” or “write more blog articles”
  • Rather than “fix 10 defects from our backlog” we would “reduce the number of defects in our backlog” or “reduce the average severity of the defects in production”

This subtle change means that we are no longer committing to a single action, but rather the outcome of our action. We are also potentially moving from quantity to other qualities.

Our sentence is a little longer since we not have either an adjective or an adverb but it forces us to have a different conversation.

There is another change though – Instead of talking about what we will do and then observing whether the world is better, we discuss how the world will be better and then we move to talking about the actions we can take to achieve that improvement.

There is to creating this kind of goal – we should also discuss who cares if we achieve it, or more specifically, whose perspective we will measure our success from. To do this, we just add the words “from the perspective of someone/some group” to the end of the goal. For example:

  • I will publish blog articles, from the perspective of (time poor readers or new agile coaches looking for tips); or
  • We will reduce the number of defects from the perspective of (our developers, our test team, our call centre or our customers).

This change generally lays bare how lame our goals are, until we refine them further. Maybe I do want better grammar in my blog (not a high priority to be honest – bad grammar from others annoys me but I am quite forgiving of my own shortcomings). If I wanted a better blog though – should I write more frequently, should I improve the usefulness of my articles for practitioners wanting tips on business side agility?

Adding the quality that will change and the person who will notice/measure/benefit from the change I seek to make (my goal), creates a clarity and focus, well beyond the loose goals of “release two features” or “improve customer experience by 22%.”

It also allows me to decide on the verb I really want. Instead of writing better blog articles, I can be more specific about whether I want to increase, decrease, understand or just baseline the adverb or adjective. I can now

  • Increase the compliance with accessibility standards in my blog from the perspective of some groups of people
  • Reduce the average word count of my articles from the perspective of the reader
  • Increase the frequency of writing something (blog or otherwise) from my own perspective

So now the wording of the improvement goal is different to an action based goal. It becomes

To (verb) the (adverb or adjective) of (noun) from the perspective of (someone)

My wording of an improvement goal

Which is better though – action words or quality focus?

I think for my blog this month I think I will stick with an action based goal. I guess if I was serious about being a better blogger though (or writer or marketer or resilient hobbyist) then I might dig into the qualities that I want to change in my writing.

The former (action) is easier and the latter (real improvement of specific aspects of something from the perspective of someone who matters) is much harder.

Which do you think is better for the goals you set though? Which matters the most – the action word or the quality of something that you want to change?


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