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Team Goals: How to Set Goals that Inspire Success

Congrats! You’ve snagged a role in management, which means bigger challenges and higher expectations are – huzzah! – yours.

For example, instead of executing the details of somebody else’s well-laid plan, you now have a boss and a team expecting you to make some “here’s where we are going to go, here’s how we’ll get there” plans of your own.

They’re looking to you for a little creativity.

A little direction.

A little leadership.

Perhaps this ‘holy crap, now what?’ moment has set in for you, perhaps not. In any case:

You have a team looking to you for direction and leadership.

As a leader, part of your job is to set goals for this team and to, you know, help them achieve them. Don’t freak out. You’ve also got this post and in it you’ll learn how to set team goals that inspire success.

And you should know that this isn’t any old, geek-off-the-street goal setting guide. This how-to guide features a low-stress, high-success goal setting approach that’s rooted in research from the fields of psychiatry and behavioral therapy.

According to that research, there’s one thing leaders must know about setting team goals.


Stretch goals. Big Hairy Audacious Goals (a.k.a. BHAGs). Pipe dreams. Air castles. Moon challenges.

Big goals get all the glory…and super fun names.

But, did you know there’s a wild irony about big goals?

Setting them can actually prevent you from achieving them.

While we might think that big-time victories bring us next-level success and happiness, experts in the fields of psychiatry, behavioral therapy, and organizational theory have found that “smaller” accomplishments actually have greater – and longer lasting – impact on our lives. (1)

As it turns out, when it comes to achieving goals and creating a success mindset, the “small win” is a pretty big deal.

What makes small so big?

Let’s find out!


Experts in the behavioral therapy say the reason why human beings respond so well to smaller-scale goals because they offer us two things we are really into: control and positive feedback.

But, we also appreciate small goals for what they DON’T put on our plate.

(1) Small goals require less effort than big goals.

With fewer moving pieces and less complex strategy involved, we perceive smaller tasks as more manageable. We believe we have what it takes to accomplish them, so guess what? We do.

(2) Small goals reduce fear.

Consciously or subconsciously, we know that little tries make for little failures. Reaching for a small win is less risky and to the average human being (which is who you will be managing), this is comforting.

(3) Small goals don’t require us to adapt to a ‘new’ normal when we achieve them.

Interestingly, research shows that “big wins” can be disorienting, which leads to unexpected negative consequences. (2) Consider folks who’ve won multi-million dollar jackpots and swear left, right, and sideways, that it ruined their lives.

(I know, I don’t get it either.)

If you hang around here long enough, you’ll learn just how much I want big things for you.

If it’s what you want, I you to blitz up the ladder. I want you to get so damn good at what you do that you’re invited to keynote-speak on it. Eventually, I want you to go wheels up on the European leg of your book tour. And, your return flight home? I want you to spontaneously divert it to your second home in Jackson Hole.


I want you to get after ALL OF THAT in a way that ensures you and your team won’t burn out OR miss out on the other important parts of your life.

And I want you to get after it in a way that won’t have you second-guessing your capability along the way.

And, most importantly, when you get there, I want you to enjoy it.

So, let’s talk about how to make the small wins approach to goal setting work for you and your team. 

First, there’s something you need to understand about arousal and task performance.


…tee hee…

Riiiiight. There’s definitely that kind of arousal (and task performance, too, I suppose), but the office-appropriate arousal I’m referring to here is simply the state of being attentive, concerned, or motivated – and it’s directly related to the concept of small wins goal setting. Here’s how:

It turns out, there is a bell-shaped relationship between arousal and task performance. This relationship is called the Yerkes-Dodson Law and, on paper, it looks something like this:

Yerkes-Dodson shows us that as arousal – remember, concern or motivation – increases, so does our ability to perform tasks up to a point. When our arousal level increases beyond that point, however, task performance actually begins to decline.

What’s behind the decline?

Hyper-arousal or, more simply, stress. It impairs our ability to concentrate, brainstorm, and solve problems.

Another really interesting thing?

The ideal level of arousal varies inversely with task difficulty. This means, the harder the task, the lower the ideal level of arousal will be. That looks something like this:

Neat, huh?


If your team has a problem to solve, a tricky project to pull off, or something y’all just want to kick ass at, you’ll need to consider your team members’ arousal level.

You can go about this in two ways.

  1. You can learn to manage your team’s stress response.

Perhaps you’ve read my post on handling the stress of leadership. If so, great! That means you’ve got three solid personal stress management strategies at your fingertips. But, can you realistically manage the stress response of each individual on your team? In upcoming posts, we’ll tackle strategies for that, but for now, let’s focus on something you have more immediate control over…

  1. You can learn to manage the level of stress you expose your team to by shifting your focus from stretch goals to small wins.

This is the option we can put into action right now. So let’s.



Your very first, do-not-pass-go, do-not-collect-$200 step in setting small wins goals is to accept that big goals can mean big trouble for your team.

Why is acceptance the first step?

Because I imagine the kind of folks who find and read posts are more ambitious than most…and to have the talent and skill to back that ambition up. This makes y’all the most at-risk for setting goals that are too big.

So, more than the average manager, you’ll need to take what the experts say to heart.

One such expert is organizational theorist Karl E. Weick, who wrote the mic drop piece on small wins while at Cornell University back in the 1980s.

His key finding?

Defining big goals and problems as ‘big’ is the problem.

“The massive scale on which [problems] are conceived often precludes innovative action…People often define [problems] in ways that overwhelm their ability to do anything about them.”

This means that while it’s totally admirable to aspire to smash last year’s sales by 20%, to uncover cost savings of $100,000, to woo a key customer away from a competitor, to grace the cover of Inc. Magazine – and some of you WILL accomplish those very things – by adopting that scale, by letting your goals be so damn BIG, you leave your team vulnerable to overwhelm, to feeling that it might not have the right stuff to get the job done.

Don’t give your team’s power away like that.

Small wins goal setting does NOT mean you have to abandon your big goals. It DOES mean you need to accept wholeheartedly that you might have to re-envision and redefine them a bit. In other words, you’ll need to learn to right-size them.

Team Goals Guidance Quote by Karl Weick


Once you’ve accepted that big goals are problematic in terms of team confidence, your next step is to learn how to right-size a too-big goal into something more manageable and meaningful for your team.

To demonstrate right-sizing, let’s begin with a BHAG.

We’ll use an example from my favorite company-of-fiction, Giant Pool Floats Co. where, in this instance, you are the new Midwest Marketing Manager for the Dessert Floats Division.

Let’s say you want to make a big splash (ha! Pool floats. Splash!) fast, so, naturally, you’ve got a big, splashy goal in mind.

Your Too-Lofty Goal: “Launch the Company’s Next Best-Selling Dessert Float”

The right-sizing process begins by ‘breaking-down’ your too-big goal into a collection of 2-3 general strategies that, if put into play, will move your team in the direction of that bigger goal. (See? You really don’t have to give it up!)

How does one identify those general strategies?

The best place to come up with ideas for your general strategies that will eventually become manageable, meaningful team goals is in a room with your team. So gather your group together, write your too-big goal on a white board and kick-off a brainstorming session with the following prompts:

  1. How will we get a little closer to this goal?
  2. How can we better position ourselves to launch the next best-seller?

Would it be helpful to see a few General Strategy examples for our best-seller BHAG?

  1. Find out what dessert float the market wants to see next.
  2. Better understand our best sales opportunities.
  3. Brainstorm an amazing launch for whatever the next float is.

Now, if your team can do these three things, you will be far better positioned to achieve your BIG, BIG goal of launching the company’s next best-selling dessert float. So, in our next step, we will build goals around these three General Strategies.

Before we do that, there’s something else to keep in mind as you work with your team to identify General Strategies.

General Strategies do not need to be implemented in any particular order. In fact, we are intentionally avoiding putting your “big goal pieces” back together in Connect-the-Dot, Step-Wise, or Ladder-Rung fashion. Why? Because, we agree with Weick, who says:

“Small wins do not combine in a neat, liner, serial form with each step being a step closer to some pre-determined goal. More common is the circumstance where small wins are scattered and cohere only in the sense that they move in the same general direction.”

Again, we are looking for movement in the direction of the big goal.


Once your team has identified their suite of General Strategies, work with them to brainstorm a set of supporting tasks, activities, habits, or projects for each strategy. Ultimately, these tasks, activities, habits, or projects become your ‘small wins’ goals.

Your small wins goals have two design criteria:

(1) you must be able to complete each small win within a short time frame using only existing skills and resources

(2) each small win must be measurable and produce its own deliverable

Yes, each small win needs its own deliverable. This is because wins feel more like wins when they produce something that you can be seen with the eyes or held in the hands. A deliverable can be a report, a dataset, receipts from holding an event, a prototype, etc. You can be very creative with your deliverables.

For now, let’s return to the Dessert Float example.

Your Too-Lofty Goal: “Launch the Company’s Next Best-Selling Dessert Float”

Remember your General Strategies?

  1. Find out what dessert float the Midwest market wants to see next.
  2. Better understand our best sales opportunities.
  3. Brainstorm an amazing launch for whatever the next float is.

In this step, we identify three tasks, activities, habits, or projects for each General Strategy. Let’s focus on General Strategy 1: Find out what dessert float the Midwest market wants to see next.

Here are a few examples of supporting projects and tasks:

Prepare a report on dessert consumption at the national level as well as for the Midwest region, specifically.

Hold two focus groups in the Midwest region to generate ideas directly from customers.

Hold an Instagram contest designed to crowd-source ideas.

Notice how each of these is measurable? Prepare one report. Hold two focus groups. Design one Instagram contest.

Next, you’ll need to identify a reasonable deadline and concrete deliverable for each small win.

In the typical corporate setting, goals and deadlines are set on a quarterly schedule, with 90 days of work dedicated to achieving a collection of goals. The small wins approach works well within this framework with some tasks so do-able that they can be completed in one month or less.

That’s fine. It’s great even. Here’s why:

Team Goals CTT1


Remember, short, sweet deadlines are ideal because any accomplishment, no matter how insignificant it may seem, jump-starts the reward circuitry in the brain.

The quicker the win, the sooner a positive feedback loop is established.

Teeing up a series of mini-accomplishments allows your team members to continually hit the “repeat” button on their positive feedback loop. This works wonders on their individual confidence and on your team’s morale as a whole.

So, let’s return to the Dessert Float example and apply some deadlines and deliverables to the small wins goals we came up with to support General Strategy 1. Again, I recommend working with your team to gather input.

General Strategy 1: Find out What Dessert Float the Midwest Market Wants to See Next 

Project One: Prepare a report on dessert consumption at the national level as well as for the Midwest region, specifically.

Date due: 3 weeks for research, 1 week for report preparation; 4 weeks total.

Deliverable: The report itself.

Project Two: Hold two focus groups in the Midwest region to generate ideas directly from customers.

Date due: 1 week to design focus group content; 2 weeks to schedule sessions; 1 week to hold sessions; 1 week to prepare report out: 5 weeks total.

Deliverable: Receipts, list of attendees, report out on consumers insights.

Project Three: Hold an Instagram contest designed to crowd-source ideas.

Date due: 1-2 weeks to design IG contest, 2 weeks to hold contest; 1 week to prepare report out: 5 weeks total.

Deliverable: Contest winner, contest imagery/collateral, crowd-sourced ideas.


Ta-da! You just right-sized your Launch the Company’s Next Best-Selling Dessert Float”goal. Instead of setting your team up for stress, you’ve identified three small wins goals that they can achieve in a short time frame with the skills and resources they currently have on hand.

And that’s just after digging into one General Strategy, right? If you complete this process for all three of your General Strategies, then you’ll have nine – NINE – potential small wins-style goals on your hands.

Each of these goals can be accomplished in 90 days, produces a concrete deliverable, and will move your team in the direction of your bigger, loftier goal.

These are the steps that sustainable success is made of.

So, are you ready for a little small wins goal setting practice? Think of one of your bigger, more visionary goals, then enter your details below to have your free copy of “The New Manager’s Guide to 90-Day Team Goal-setting” instantly delivered to your inbox. This 15-page guide and workbook includes:

– an overview of how to design small wins,

– a fill-in-the-blank-style template for you to practice breaking down your too-big goal, and

– three additional considerations you’ll need to keep in mind when finalizing your first set of 90-day goals.

New Managers Guide to Team Goal Setting

Boost team confidence and performance with "success-size" team goals.

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Sustainable success is made up of small habits, decisions, tasks, and activities that close knowledge or resource gaps, that sharpen skills, that open new doors, that build capacity for a tougher challenge the next go ‘round.

Choose the small win strategy as your approach to goal-setting and, all at once, you’ll be:

– managing your team’s stress levels so that they can perform at their peak,

– jump-starting a positive feedback loop that will boost confidence and morale,

– consistently creating collections of potential goal ideas for this quarter and those that follow.

And, of course, there’s the New Manager’s Guide to 90-Day Team Goal-setting. I recommend that you download it and print out copies for your team. This will help them understand where your goal setting approach is coming from and will offer them a chance to do some right-sizing practice of their own.

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