What Keeps People From Hitting Their Goals


December 20, 2022

I’ve had goals since I was in third grade and wanted to run faster than Dee Maxon at recess. But I had no clue how to do it. I’ve had hundreds of goals since third grade, and I’m probably at about a 50% success rate – but my success rate is getting better fast.

Here’s the one thing I learned that made all the difference in whether or not I accomplished them. It’s something that Harvard psychologist and best-selling author Amy Cuddy says is the number one thing that keeps people from hitting their goals.

We don’t know how to get there.

That’s the difference between goals and objectives.

Goals create the big picture of where we hope to land down the line. This means you define the destination at which you want to arrive. Goals create your focus and help you know which tactics will take you there.

Objectives, on the other hand, are what you use to create the specific steps to get there. It’s all about the tactical plan you’ll take to get to your destination.

Goals lead to objectives. Objectives lead to results. And results inform whether or not you’re going to make your goals.

“Goals lead to objectives. Objectives lead to results. And results inform whether or not you’re going to make your goals.”

Carla Johnson, RE:Think Labs

For an example of how clear objectives can solve even the most complex of problems, let’s take a look at how a stand-up comedian won over the hearts of people everywhere by selling them… a boring old phone router.

Clear objectives help connect the dots

Tim Washer had an impossible task on his hands.

He was the creative director of the Service Provider Marketing Group at Cisco, and it was time to ramp up for another product launch. An engineering-driven company that sells telecommunications equipment, Cisco liked content that bled facts. The company’s engineers loved their products. And the only thing they love more than their products was talking about them in painful detail.

A few months earlier, Tim received a request to prepare the usual “talking head” video and accompanying marketing materials to launch Cisco’s new product, the ASR 9000 router switch—essentially, a metal box full of wires. He thought about gathering the usual suspects in a conference room and having a brainstorming session to come up with ideas. To bring more creativity to the table and try something new. But he’s also been in enough corporate meetings to know what comes out of them: nothing that’s either innovative or creative. Tim knew potential buyers would never simply read a press release, a web page, or watch a talking-head video of a product engineer swooning over the latest design and decide to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a piece of equipment.

Then one Saturday night he found himself in a comedy club in New York City.

The marquee featured Ray Romano, one of the greatest comedians of all time. In the cramped, hot audience, Tim watched from his seat as Ray stood bathed in the spotlight, going through his routine. The audience roared with laughter as they wiped tears from their eyes. Line after line hit home with Ray’s stories about spouses, in-laws, and kids…the kinds of things that people in the audience could directly relate to.

Tim also happens to be a stand-up comedian who’s worked with the best of the best in the industry. He wrote Amy Poehler’s “Weekend Update” skits on Saturday Night Live. When Conan O’Brien needed a crooked politician or a drunk executive, Tim got the call. He went head-to-head over climate change in a skit with Bill Nye (the Science Guy) on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

That’s when Tim had a burst of brilliance for his product launch. He thought about what made Ray so relatable to people in the comedy club: he got the audience to laugh.

“If you can get someone to laugh, that builds an immediate and intimate connection,” Tim said. “It makes people lower their emotional walls, and they let you in. And that’s when you can begin to build a relationship with them.”

Tim took this idea of comedy and getting people to laugh and connected the dots to his work in creating a video for the product launch. The Cisco ASR 9000 router would be released just before Valentine’s Day. Instead of the same boring announcement, he used the idea of comedy to build a relationship with buyers.

Clear goals + clear objectives = big results

In the opening of the video, a man’s voice asks, “How many ways can a man tell his sweetheart I love you?” As the video explains, until now there were three: He could buy her expensive diamonds. He could take her on a tropical vacation. Or he could carve their initials into a tree, and then carve a heart around them. But now, he could give her the ultimate expression of his everlasting affection: the Cisco ASR 9000 router. Tim then had fun with explaining how the features of the router underscore a man’s love for his sweetheart. The last scene declares that with the new Cisco router, there are now four ways for a man to express his love. While the message of the video was so ridiculous, his over-the-top approach made people laugh.

Tim didn’t start out with a goal of getting analyst attention and mainstream media coverage. But that’s exactly what the video generated. The New York Times coverage said, “In my experience, a discussion about large back-haul capacity stands as a surefire way to kill a romantic mood. And yet here’s Cisco Systems arguing that such talk will win over your loved one on Valentine’s Day.” Industry press covered it, and that made customers look at it. The video made it easier for salespeople to talk about the new Cisco ASR 9000 router because customers were already laughing at the video. To an engineer, it was the height of appreciation for a job well done.

For Tim, all of these elements fell perfectly into place because he had a clear objective for a problem he needed to solve. When inspiration struck, his mind kicked into rapid-fire mode and connected the dots for everything he needed.

Goals versus objectives

It turns out that the best ideas in the world come from exactly the same place that they did for Tim—everyday life. In this case, he knew exactly the problem he was looking to solve—a more creative way to launch a boring-as-all-get-out product. Knowing that, he was like a satellite in constant receive mode. Everything he took in was filtered for its potential to help him solve his problem.

As you learn the Perpetual Innovation Process and get the hang of it, you’ll start with an objective and then set out to find inspiration in the world. But as you become well versed, most likely you’ll start with the first step—Observe—and find an objective at a later time. Both approaches work, but which one you use depends on your dot-connecting sophistication. I talk more about the Perpetual Innovation Process in my book, RE:Think Innovation.

One thing I want to point out is the difference between goals and objectives.

Goals are broad in scope and create the big picture of where you hope to land down the line. This means you define the destination at which you want to arrive. Goals create your focus and help you know which tactics will take you there. For example, you may have a goal to save more money this year. That’s pretty vague and doesn’t outline a plan for how you’ll get there. They may follow a formula—e.g., SMART—but that doesn’t work for open-ended innovation.

Tim’s goal was to increase the number of people who reached out to a Cisco salesperson about the new ASR 9000 router.

Objectives, on the other hand, lay out the specific steps you’ll take to accomplish your goal. It’s all about the tactical plan you’ll take to get to your destination. Objectives give you elbow room for figuring things out and making adjustments along the way. They allow you to find dots to connect, while goals try to hand them to you. If your goal is to save more money this year, then your objective may be to cut back on the number of times you eat out each month so you can put $1,000 out of every paycheck toward your retirement plan.

In Tim’s situation, his objective was specific. He wanted to bring awareness to Cisco’s new product launch by capturing the attention of the media and industry analysts all with a zero public relations budget.

The formula for setting objectives

Coming up with objectives to help you hit goals is a skill everyone needs to get better at. But we don’t want to fall into the trap of defaulting to the same things we’ve always done. If we can start with an objective that makes us stand out in new and creative ways, that’s where the real money’s at.

In fact, the difference between people who have ideas and the ones who successfully execute them is understanding the problem that will propel business forward. If that’s not the case, then your idea is a “nice to have” that will never get traction—it’s new and great, but not reliable. This is because the people you need to support you will always have bigger priorities.

“The difference between people who have ideas and the ones who successfully execute them is understanding the problem that will propel the business forward.”

Carla Johnson, RE:Think Labs

Having an objective to work toward gives purpose and structure to the ideas you come up with. The purpose of your objective statement is to decide what problem you want to solve and how it bubbles up to your goal, and then align people around the work that needs to get done—all while thinking just a little bit differently.

There are three parts to the objective statement for the Perpetual Innovation Process:

1. We need new ideas to…

You need to clearly identify what you intend to work on, so your attention isn’t scattered all over the place (shiny object syndrome). Pick something that is big enough to make a difference but small enough to manage.

2. So we can…

Regardless of what area of business you work in, you have to understand what specific impact you expect to make and how you’ll contribute to business goals—not just marketing goals.

3. With these constraints…

Let’s face it, everything would be possible if the sky’s the limit. But you have to be realistic. What constraints do you need to work with? Budget? Time? Power-hungry Kevin in accounting who vetoes everything? List at least two that you know you’ll need to work with.

In Tim’s situation, he needed new ideas to bring awareness to earn 10 tweets from identified industry analysts and reporters so he could gain awareness for the Cisco ASR 9000 router all with zero PR budget.

Examples of clear objective statements

We need new ideas…to differentiate our customer experience
So we can…decrease customer churn by 5%
With these constraints…within the next six months and for a budget of $1,000,000 or less

We need new ideas…for how we conduct global employee culture training
So we can…improve employee engagement and retention by 10%
With these constraints…within the next 12 calendar months and for a budget of $500,000 or less

This statement will ultimately serve as your North Star when you start to filter through ideas and decide which are better than others.

Now it’s your turn. Use this formula and work with your team to develop your own objective statement and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Download the Worksheet

Want to work through your Objective Statement with a team or by yourself? Download this worksheet to guide your progress.

Want to know more about how to crush all your goals? Check out:

Tim Washer Runs EXACTLY 19.3 Miles on the Humor Cliff
How to Innovate
Improve Creativity (and Innovative Thinking) in 60 Seconds
Jeff Perkins on How to Be a Problem Solver

Photo credit: iStock Pexels

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.