Solving the Puzzle of Goal Setting Within Engineering Teams

Goal setting is a simple concept that is difficult to follow through even with the best agile engineering teams. In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by Bridges Consultancy, 48% of leaders fail to implement their strategies successfully. While this is a huge decrease from the 90% failure rate they saw in 2004, there’s still work to be done. As a leader, you want to make sure you’re crafting goals that allow you to implement your strategies effectively.

Goal setting might vary depending on the size of the company, the company’s goals, OKRs, etc. You could work at two SaaS-based companies and be faced with two very different structures. 

So, how do you set goals within an Engineering Team effectively?

The trick: think of it like a puzzle. 

1. The company goal = The overall picture

Imagine you’re sitting at a puzzle table (or most likely your coffee table/dining room table cause we’re not all that fancy). When you’re working on a puzzle, you look at the picture on the box as a guide. 

You should look at your company’s goals the same way you look at the puzzle box: for the overall picture. 

What might the overall picture look like for your company? Perhaps it’s an OKR or a North Star metric. Maybe it’s not anything as rigid as that. However your company conveys its goals, you should use that as the framework within your own engineering teams as you start to build out goals. 

2. Your engineering goal = The edge pieces 

If you’re an expert puzzler, you know that you always begin with the edge pieces. It’s the framework for what’s to come. That's how you should think of your overall engineering goals. What you decide for your goals as a manager should create the framework for the rest of your engineering team.  

Look at the overall picture of what your company is trying to achieve. How will your goals further push your company forward? 

A few tips when creating your goals: 

  1. Keep it SMART - Your goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely. SMART goals should push you but should not be impossible to achieve. 
  2. Relay goal milestones (and changes) to your team - Have a structure in place that allows you to relay your goals with the rest of your team. And update them! Once again, these goals should be measurable, so why not let the rest of the team be clued in on your progress? 
  3. Keep new team members in the loop - If you’re a growing company, new people are bound to join your team. How do you make sure they’re on the same page as everyone else? They’re not mind readers, so if they don’t know that these goals exist, they can’t align with them. That’s why you need to have an onboarding strategy in place that includes your team’s goals.  

These are only a few tips to help you get started with your goals. That only leaves the rest of the pieces: your team. 

3. Individuals collaborator goals = The central pieces 

Finally, we’re looking to turn over all your puzzle pieces (individual team members) and examine them, and compare them to the rest of the puzzle pieces. What are their main differentiators? Every team member holds a piece in accomplishing your engineering goals. 

You can ensure maximum alignment by working with each individual on your team to craft their goals.

Perhaps every team member will have the same goals. Perhaps they won’t. There are no hard and fast rules when coming up with goals for the rest of your team. What matters is that everyone’s goals align. 

4. Putting the puzzle together

If there is alignment between your company’s goals, your goals, and the rest of your team’s goals, then you should be able to move forward. The downside to this strategy is that if you’re not careful, you could end up with a piece that doesn’t fit. 

For example, if the goal at the company level is to increase revenue by a certain  percent, your goal is to create a strategy that does that. In this case, perhaps you want to push out a new feature for your product that can then be wrapped up into a paid plan. If this is the goal, make sure everyone on your team is working to further this objective by creating, promoting, debugging, etc. for that feature or on some other goal that aligns with bringing in more revenue to the company. 

The last thing you want is for a team member working on something that, in the end, won’t help bring in more revenue. 

5. Reviewing goals with Retrospectives

Setting goals is a learning process. You won’t get it perfect the first time, second time, maybe not ever. But if you’re able to set goals that ultimately move the company forward, you’re doing a great job! Sometimes things work better than expected, sometimes things don’t work at all. 

Review with your team what works and what doesn’t with retros. You set the pace on how often you want to hold a retro. Perhaps you want to retro monthly or quarterly. During a retro, evaluate how close you came to reaching your goals. 

What to discuss in your retros: 

  1. 100% of the goal completed? Wow, that’s fantastic! If you’re able to hit 100% of your goal, discuss with your team what went right and how you can do that again. 
  2. 80% of the goal completed? That’s great! That means you're propelling your goals forward, but there could be room for improvement. What went well? What could be improved? 
  3. 70% of the goal completed or below? There’s some work that needs to be done. Discuss with your team what happened and what you can do better next time. 
  4. Didn't hit your goals? That's OK. There is also value in failure in the sense that you can learn from your mistakes. And let your team know that, as well. Otherwise, they’ll be too afraid to take risks. Create an environment where while failure isn’t the goal, it’s also not the end. 

Conclusion

Hopefully this article provided a few tips on how to set goals within your engineering team. By thinking of goal setting as a puzzle, we feel that you should see success in reaching your goals. Interested in learning more? Check out the LeadDev + Airbrake webinar on "Setting the right strategic goals for your engineering org." In it, a team of senior engineering panelists and CTOs from several different organizations come together to discuss what it takes to create successful goals. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBNbl_N0iLQ&t=9s