How To Set Operational Goals


I’ve been in many discussions about overall strategy with a department management team and seen that the managers are checked out, scrolling through their emails or texting urgent messages to their staff about issues of the day. They just don’t feel a close connection to the strategy of the organization and have real “boots on the ground” activities that need to be executed this week and this month. Strategy seems like a luxury conversation.

And yet this doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have to be the case. Operational goals are the driving forces of an organization’s long-term success and strategy. In this article, we’ll walk you through how to set operational goals and ensure they link to your big-picture strategy.

Operational goals should be ingrained in every area of your strategic plan. You won’t be able to achieve your strategy otherwise. Click To Tweet

Definition Of Operational Goals

To begin, let’s make sure we’re all speaking the same language. Depending on your company’s internal vocabulary, operational goals can be called many different things: operational objectives, tactical objectives, team goals, or departmental goals.These goals populate work plans, which can also be called operational plans, action plans, or action registers.

Regardless of the phrases you use, operational goals are items an organization wants to accomplish over the course of one to two years. They are (typically) defined by these characteristics:

  • Limited to a single department or division
  • Associated with a budget
  • Tracked to see “what you get” with the budget you have
  • Measurable and actionable
  • Shorter time frames

For example, let’s say a marketing department has a work plan based on its two-year budget. One goal in the work plan is to improve brand awareness by 35 percent in key markets; the related tasks include attending three conferences, launching 15 campaigns, and developing 12 new partnerships. Over the course of the next two years, the marketing department will check off tasks and report on goal progress.

To summarize, operational goals form the structure of a work plan. When you create operational goals, keep your strategic goals in mind. All goals should ladder up to the company’s strategy, which is based on its mission and vision.

Linking Operational Goals To Strategic Goals

A strategy is a high-level plan to accomplish items of key importance for your organization over the course of three to five years. Strategic goals are the building blocks of a strategy. They can be organized in multiple ways: by perspectives (financial, customer, internal process, and people) or by division and department.

At the enterprise level, an organization typically has seven to 25 goals. (There may be additional strategic goals for each division, but we’ll keep it simple for this example.) Let’s assume you have 12 goals across four perspectives:

  • Write each strategic goal in a way that allows you to measure progress over time. Sometimes the goal is vague like “increase revenue” and “reduce waste.” Other times, the measure is implied within the goal wording like “double revenue in five years” or “increase recycled materials by 40 percent by 2023.”
  • Next, create operational goals that are more tactical, one to two years in length, and tied to a realistic budget. These operational goals should link directly to your strategic goals. Think of them as the short-term method for achieving your strategy.

Operational goals should be ingrained in every area of your strategic plan. You won’t be able to achieve your strategy otherwise. If you have too many operational goals tied to one strategic goal and not enough (or any) tied to another, consider shifting resources and prioritizing your operational goals differently.

Also, you may have operational goals and plans aligned by department, such as a marketing operations plan, customer success plan, product development plan, etc. Check all your work plans to make sure they cover all your strategic goals.

Your strategy won’t be effective if you don’t have those operational goals in place and on track. Operational tactics and strategic vision have a reciprocal relationship. Plus, if you’re in a cost-cutting environment, it will be easier to defend your budget or work plan if it links closely to the strategy. You’ll be able to clearly show that you’re thinking strategically and using resources in a way that supports the strategy.

From goals to change agendas, a lot goes into successfully executing an organization’s strategy. Learn about each step in the process with this toolkit.

Setting Goals Vs. Setting Targets

An important distinction to make here is that goals are different than targets. We’ve established that operational goals specify (in a measurable way) the short-term tactics an organization will take to achieve its strategy. Targets are tools that allow you to define expected progress in even smaller steps that align with the details and deadlines of operational goals. More specifically, targets are typically set by quarter throughout the one- to two-year time span of an operational goal.

For example, if you have an operational goal for employees to improve 75 percent of the paved roads in your city within two years, the target could be to repave 10 miles in Q1, 30 miles in Q2, 100 miles by the end of the year, and so forth. The target looks like it’s changing, but it’s just associated with a specific segment of time. A “moving target” isn’t a bad thing—targets are supposed to shift based on time periods, and hitting those targets will successfully demonstrate the progress you’re making.

Goals can sometimes overlap with targets and that’s OK. An operational goal may be small and manageable enough to look and act like a target. Just remember that sometimes it’s easier to set your goals first, and then set targets as needed. If they overlap, then so be it. For example, you may have “improve road quality” or “improve road quality by 30 percent in six months.”

If your work plan is driven by a budgeting process, you might also have stages of review where the budget is adjusted before the plan is finally approved. When budgets are cut, so are tasks. If this is the case, it’s easiest to adapt if targets are separate from operational goals. Going back to our recycling example, if you have 50 percent less budget, then you could have 50 percent fewer tasks, and thus won’t have the resources and manpower to increase recycled materials by 40 percent within the 2023 timeframe.

Operational Goals and Projects

A strategic plan has clearly defined goals, measures, and projects. Your strategic projects contribute to your goals so you can improve your measures. When you’re doing operations planning, operational goals and projects will be intermixed—and that’s perfectly normal. Similar to how goals and targets can overlap, so can goals and projects. Sometimes you’ll measure a longer term operational goal, like improving miles and miles of paved roads; and sometimes you’ll track and measure a shorter project, like widening a bridge. From a strategy standpoint, the bridge widening will look like a project, but from an operations perspective, it’s both a goal and a project. Ultimately, a lot of your activities will directly or indirectly link to your strategic goals.

Operational budgets are usually consumed by projects, so those projects start to have goal-like “symptoms.” Because of this fluidity of terminology, it’s important to regularly evaluate operational goals and projects to ensure they are on track and aligned with the organization’s strategy. This helps you be continually aware of how the progress you’re achieving is helping the company, all the way up to the strategic level.

Also, if your work plan is full of projects, you need to be very thoughtful in your budgeting process. You cannot simply cut 20 percent of the milestones in a project. Sometimes the milestones have dependencies, and thus, if you’re cutting 20 percent, you might as well cut 100 percent because the rest of the project cannot work without that percentage on the chopping block.

In conclusion, keep in mind that the strategy team usually reviews all work plans, typically through the budgeting process. They’re certifying that these plans, and the associated operational goals, link to strategy, and are funding activities across the organization to increase performance (directly or indirectly) on strategic goals. Setting and achieving the right operational goals will further your company’s strategic vision, while also making your department look good and helping it gain more funding.

At ClearPoint, we’ve built software that allows you to show how your operational goals align with the organization’s strategic goals. This comprehensive view will help you when prioritizing budgeting decisions, as well as demonstrating how your departments align to the goals of the entire organization. Stop shooting in the dark during your budgeting process. With ClearPoint, you can clarify how your plans align and increase the chances of successfully executing your strategy.

Download: The Strategy Execution Toolkit