GOOD GOALS: From Effort To Results

(This was written in response to a challenge from MassDOT’s new chief, Transportation Secretary Richard Davey.  But it’s really about what all service, public sector, and non-profit organizations need to keep in mind when they begin a goal-setting process – and the types of goals that outside stakeholders and advocates should be insisting upon.)

A Sales VP in a high-tech firm I once worked at told his staff that “effort only counts in elementary school.  In the adult world, all that matters is results.”  Of course, the real issue is the nature of the results you are seeking in life, which I would maintain should include more than dollar-denominated bottom lines.  But the core idea, the value of numerically describing what you are trying to achieve, has a lot of merit.  Especially for organizations.

So I was very impressed when, during the Q&A session following his talk at the recent MassDOT “Moving Together” conference, newly appointed Secretary of Transportation, Richard Davey, boldly said that he wanted to move beyond general statements that MassDOT would “increase” or “promote” or “encourage” to explicit performance goals that his organization should aim for.  Setting specific performance targets is a powerful strategy – it focuses energy, prioritizes activity, and can prompt improved agency-wide collaboration.

It is also a courageous and risky move.  It can increase transparency and accountability – two things that most organizations do their best to avoid.  It forces you to be more honest and visible about your strengths and your weaknesses, your successes and your failures – there is less room to hide.  It creates a potentially more productive but a definitely more challenging managerial context – particularly because establishing the wrong types or targets can skew operations in extremely damaging ways.

Secretary Davey seemed not only willing to accept the challenge, but eager to raise the bar even further:  He then challenged the audience to help MassDOT define and set the goals it needs to reach.  If he is really serious about this, it is quite incredible – a huge statement about how far the state’s Department of Transportation has moved from the Big Dig era of incompetent arrogance since Governor Patrick was elected.

Of course, it’s easy to stand on the sidelines and give advice – including what follows, below.  But I’m sure that if Secretary Davey is open to it, the advocacy community would be very willing to partner with MassDOT to constructively help with the hard work needed to develop appropriate performance goals.


Attributes of Good Goals

It’s not all that hard to come up with possible goals for an organization.  It’s not all that easy to come up with good goals.  Fortunately, even if difficult, coming up with good performance goals is straight forward – they have a standard set of general attributes describing both what they measure and their qualities.

First, good performance goals distinguish between Inputs, Operations/processes, Outputs, and Impacts by focusing on the latter two.  

  • Inputs are the resources being used – money, person-time, machines, materials, etc.
  • Operations/processes are what the organization does with those resources and the time span needed to do it.
  • Outputs are the specific products of the work, the number of miles of roads or bike paths, etc.
  • Impacts are the indirect results of the outputs – the number of trips taken by bike, the number of car accidents, the number of people exposed to transportation-related air pollution, etc.

Second, taken all together, good performance goals examine both Efficiency and Effectiveness:

  • Efficiency is the amount of Output or Impact per unit of Input, as well as the length of time needed to complete an Operation or key tasks within it.
  • Effectiveness is the absolute amount of Output or Impact.

Third, good performance goals measure change over time, both Internally and Comparatively:

  • Internal Change focuses on the organization’s own history.
  • External Comparison involves benchmarking the organization’s performance against the results of similar organizations around the world, as well as against emerging new performance standards made possible by new technologies or process innovations.

Finally, good performance goals are Significant, Measureable, Transparent, Actionable, and Educational.

  • Significant means that the goal is important to external stakeholders and internal leadership, and that it provides insight into the efficiency or effectiveness of key operations/processes.
  • Measurable means that it can be expressed in numbers (quantifiable), and that it is already available or able to be counted using current technologies either by the organization itself or some outside group.
  • Transparent goals avoid insider jargon; they are understandable by both the staff and the public; the measuring process and computations must be verifiable by outside parties if desired.
  • Actionable goals focus on things that the organization can improve, that are within its scope of authority – if discussing snow-storm issues, the point is not reducing the amount of snow but improving the organization’s ability to deal with it.
  • Educational is both the most abstract and the most important quality of a good performance goal in its ability to focus staff and public attention on key issues, not only concerning current operations but also revealing gaps in needed resources.

(There is a subtle but important distinction between setting Performance Goals and setting goals for Strategic or Tactical Actions.  One of the differences is that the criteria for the later should also include building the organization’s membership and financial stability.  Another difference: advocacy organizations need to include Symbolic, Easy, and Fundamental goals spread out into Short-term, Mid-Term, and Long-Term time frames.

  • Symbolic – send a message to key audiences that the issue is being taken seriously by top leadership and their concerns are being addressed; but Symbolic achievement do not necessarily make any real difference in the issue being addressed.
  • Easy – low-cost, quickly accomplished, relatively non-controversial, and preferably very visible changes that actually begin to address some aspect of the issue – its causes, actions, or impacts – even if only peripherally.
  • Fundamental – begin the process of dealing with the underlying causes, process, or results of the problem even if it is only the first stage of a longer-term and extremely complicated effort.)

The Grammar of Goals

A good goal statement contains a very specific set of facts in a very specific structure.  Performance goals describe what is being measured, the desired change over a specified period of time, and the method of measurement.

  • What is being measured should be as specific as possible – e.g. the number of functional and trips made by bicycle in urban SMSA areas (impact) or the number of traffic-separated bike lanes (using bollards, parked cars, curbs, or on separate paths to keep the bikes away from moving cars) in the Commonwealth’s Gateway Cities (product).
  • The desired change and time period – e.g. increase at an annual rate of 10% over the next five years; or reach a mode share of 8% by 2015.
  • The method of measurement – e.g. as measured by annual traffic counts conducted by the Traffic Department in each city using road monitors.

The Transportation Particulars

MassDOT is a transportation agency. Some of the issues it deals with are different from those facing a hospital or school.  So there is also a need to define agency-specific categories for its performance goals.  Useful categories might include two types of Impacts (Behaviors and Effects), two types of Outputs (Structures and Policies), and one for Operations.

  • Behaviors – number/percentage of Single Occupancy Vehicle trips/miles; number or mode share of functional and/or recreational bike trips; number of transit users; etc.
  • Effects – amount of greenhouse gases or particulates or Ozone or NOx released; number of people exposed to unhealthy emissions; average mile/gallon achieved by cars/trucks using Massachusetts’ roads; percentage of population within walking distance of full-service transit system; percentage of school-age kids who walk/bike a majority of the time; etc.
  • Structures – number of miles of different kinds of bike facilities (physically separated, buffered, on-road, off-road); number/percentage of bus stops with weather protection for waiting passengers; etc.
  • Policies – number/percentage of municipalities (or of the population living in municipalities) that have adopted Complete Streets policies or follow the state’s Highway Design Guide for local construction; number/percentage of schools (or of the student population attending schools) that have implemented Safe Routes To School programs; etc.
  • Operations – number/percent of construction projects that include a conceptual-stage public meeting; length of time needed to approve Recreational Trail proposal; etc.


Other Relevant Posts:

>DESIGNING A TRANSPORTATION REPORT CARD: Ideas for a State Bike & Pedestrian Facility Progress Report

>Picking Transportation Spending Priorities


>YOU CAN’T PLAN A ROUTE UNLESS YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING: Comments on MassDOT’s 2010-2015 Capital Investment Plan

>REDEFINING TRANSPORTATION: from Moving Vehicles to Place-Making

Take our website survey!