Aspirational Goals vs. Commit Goals: Using both to find balance across your OKRs
Don’t de-motivate your team by making every goal a moonshot
John Doerr writes in Measure what Matters about OKRs’ superpowers, including how they help us “Stretch for Amazing”:
“OKRs motivate us to excel by doing more than we’d thought possible. By testing our limits and affording the freedom to fail, they release our most creative, ambitious selves.”
In the book, he includes several inspiring stories of “moonshot” goals that organizations have used to transform their businesses. OKRs’ ability to build a culture of success and achievement (where we push ourselves ever further) is one of their primary strengths, but it’s folly to believe that every goal we set as a team needs to be an ambitious stretch goal or moonshot. Massive success is the sum of small wins, and every team needs a balanced goal-setting approach to stay motivated.
Goals fit into two categories:
Commit goals are meant to be completely attained. Sales forecasts are a familiar example of a commit goal—since the business’s budget depends on revenue, these goals must be attained as reliably as possible.
Aspirational goals are meant to stretch your team, at the risk of incomplete attainment. These are your moonshots, and attaining 70% of an aspirational goal will often see you further than 100% of a less ambitious target.
How to choose when to aspire and when to commit:
Keep your teams motivated: Teams that only set aspirational goals risk getting demotivated, as it can be exhausting to never fully achieve your targets. Moreover, some goals by their nature (such as many operational goals) need to be attained 100% in order to be a success. Don’t re-frame those goals as aspirational (e.g. by taking the commit goal and multiplying by X to set a stretch target), as that will just confuse everyone about what’s needed.
Inspire and challenge teams to break barriers: Teams that only set commit goals risk creating a culture where risk-taking is discouraged and where failure becomes unacceptable. If you've adopted OKRs to drive innovation or growth, you can't expect every experiment to succeed. You want people to come up with bold ideas, and within some boundaries, give it a try.
Calibrate based on the situation: If the team has been failing to achieve their goals, or when there are huge external pressures, that’s a better time to lower targets and ensure that goals are attainable. For teams that consistently achieve their targets, and especially when there are extra resources for creativity and experimentation, aspirational goals are a great opportunity to stretch further.
How to make a balanced approach work:
Clear communication and documentation: Make expectations and practices around setting goal targets clear by documenting them in your OKR Playbook. Make it easy for anyone to know when a goal is aspirational vs. committed.
Calibrated scoring: Use a consistent goal scoring approach at the end of each period. For example, say a score of “0.7” means “we met expectations”. In that case, hitting 70% of an aspirational goal might mean a score of 0.7, while for a commit goal, hitting 100% would also be a 0.7 score. Keeping a calibrated scoring approach between aspirational goals and commit goals will make it easier to celebrate the wins and won’t artificially encourage teams to avoid stretch goals. Note that our suggested approach is different vs. the advice from whatmatters.com (linked below).
Start conservative, then push the boundaries: When starting out with OKRs, lean towards using committed goals. This will help form positive habits and allow employees to understand how the OKR methodology fits into the broader organization. Once everyone gets the hang of things, add in more aspirational stretch goals.
Focus on the “why”: whether they’re aspirational or commit goals, OKRs need to engender a sense of purpose. Challenge yourself as a team to articulate your objectives in a way that makes it clear why you’re attempting to achieve your targets. A clear sense of purpose will make it easier for everyone to know what actions to take and will keep the team motivated, especially when achieving your goals is challenging.
When it comes to choosing aspirational or committed goals, it will depend on your company and the overall strategy. Both types of goals have a unique value and determining when to use each will pivot your organization for success. Need some inspiration or looking for some ideas of aspirational or committed OKRS? Check out our OKR Examples Worksheet to get started creating your own.