Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
That depends a good deal on where you want to get to… — Alice in Wonderland
Here’s a quick test. See if you can answer this question: why are you doing what you’re doing right now? Why are you reading this blog post? Why were you doing the thing you were just doing before this? Why did you do all the things you did yesterday?
If you’re having trouble answering any of these questions, you might be suffering from a lack of clearly defined goals. Without goals, any choice we make is as good as any other, because our actions are not in service of anything particular. When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.
That may be just fine in many situations, but for a digital project, proceeding without goals is a sure path to ending up somewhere you didn’t want to be, while wasting time and money along the way. Goals give everyone on the project team a framework for prioritizing their work, while providing justification for the inclusion — or exclusion — of features or activities. Without goals, you’re flying blind, and as any pilot can attest to, that’s not a great idea.
If you find yourself mid-way through a digital strategy project that doesn’t have any defined goals, don’t despair – it’s not too late! While it’s ideal to establish and document your goals early on in a project (before you even start gathering requirements), it’s a worthwhile activity at any stage.
So, how do you get started? First, write down why you think you’re doing this. Are you trying to build your audience? Connect disparate teams? Share data? Whatever it is, put it into a few short phrases and write them down (can’t overemphasize that part).
Then for each one, add a “because…” to it, then fill in the blank. The “because” part is a lot harder than just the goal. Saying “Our goal is to increase Facebook engagement 50% over the next year” is great, but ultimately not very meaningful if you can’t explain why you want that – what are you going to do with the people who engage? Do you want them to comment? Just hit the “like” button? Take an action? Sign up for something? Buy something? Share your content? Why?
If the root cause seems elusive, try the “5 Whys” exercise – it was originally conceived of to help identify root causes of problems, but it’s valuable for goal-setting as well. Don’t worry if the why leads you to change your goal – what you originally wrote may well be an objective in service of that goal.
Where goals are high-level, objectives should follow the S.M.A.R.T. model: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-based (there are other definitions as well, but I like this one).
Say you’re a media company, and your goal is to increase consumption of your content across channels by millennial audiences because your primary audience is aging out and you need to replace those subscribers. That’s a great goal, but it’s not terribly specific. So an objective in service of that goal might be to increase mobile reach to millennial readers by 10% in the next quarter. Now we know a specific target to shoot for, and we know what channel we’re measuring on.
Your goals will likely have several measurable objectives each – if you can’t come up with any, then either your goal is too specific, or it’s too lofty and no objectives will help achieve it. (Then again, it’s good for goals to be lofty!)
Working Backwards to Achieve your Vision
If you’re having trouble defining your digital strategy goals, try starting at the end and working backward. To do this, start by creating a set of vision statements that describe the way things will be once you’ve successfully completed your project.
A vision statement is simply a sentence, written in the present tense, that describes how things are in an ideal future. For example, if you’re redesigning your community-based website to encourage more user-generated content, one of your vision statements might read: “Thought leaders in the world of open source software regularly use our platform to post their articles.” From there, you can work backward to get to a goal.
Of course, you’ll first want to identify why this vision has merit, then incorporate that into the goal you create. Your goals, if achieved, should help turn your future vision into reality.
Putting your Goals to Work!
Once you’ve written your project goals, don’t simply put them in a drawer and get on with your life. They are meant to be a decision-making and prioritizing tool as you proceed. For every feature you describe, if it doesn’t lead to getting one of your goals achieved, that feature probably doesn’t need to be in your product, or at least not in the current release.
If you find that feature after feature in your backlog fails to map to a goal, either you missed documenting an important goal, or you need to take a bigger step back and re-evaluate your feature list before you go any further. Digital strategy goals should be revisited as things change on your project (which of course they will). When a stakeholder asks to add a new feature, you can ask, “Does this help us achieve one of our stated goals?” If not, you’ve got some ammunition to say no.
Even better – if you put in the time to prioritize your goals, prioritizing your backlog gets that much easier. Not all goals are created equal, so putting them in order gives you a framework for deciding what to work on next. Like anything else on a project, goals can change over time, and that’s OK – just make sure that you keep them up to date and are cognizant of the impact those changes will have on the rest of your project.
Now that you’re armed with your goals, you have a powerful tool to help your project on track and keep your efforts focused on activities that will provide real value and solve real problems. If you’re just starting your project, read up on our 10 steps for successful requirements gathering. And be on the lookout for my next blog post and video where I will share tips for aligning your team and winning stakeholder buy-in.