Smart goal-setting in action: How to make progress on a giant goal

When it comes to breaking down a gigantic goal into actionable, measurable steps, things can feel a bit daunting. To quote Carl Sagan:

If you wish to make apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.

No pressure, right!

Similarly, what if you have one of these goals:

  • Grow Monthly Active Users (MAUs) by 10x
  • Increase Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) 50% year-over-year
  • Dominate the customer service market
  • Reposition your brand to serve the Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) space

Where do you begin?

At times, I’ve struggled to find the best starting point. However, whenever things have gone well, it’s typically because of a two-pronged approach: 1) zoom out and identify the levers within the goal, and then 2) make a bet on a lever and get to work. I’ve found these initial stages of focus to be incredibly helpful for breaking down a capital-G Giant Goal into manageable next steps.

Here then is my action plan for making progress toward a very big strategic goal.

But first! There are a couple things to understand:

  • The difference between lagging indicators and leading indicators. A lagging indicator records what has happened, whereas a leading indicator can influence change. You want to be spending your time working on leading indicators. Big goals are typically lagging indicators. The levers within those goals are the leading indicators. For example, if you consider weight loss, the amount you weigh is a lagging indicator, which records your weight; leading indicators would be things like caloric intake and calories burned — harder to measure but more actionable, specific, and influential.
  • Giant Goals often suffer from tagline syndrome. These are goals that sound catchy at the cost of clarity. If you have a Giant Goal, it’s important to turn it into a SMART goal: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant to the business, and time-bound. The most common missing elements in a Giant Goal are “measurable “and “time-bound.” Sometimes “achievable” can be up for debate, too! 😅
  • Start with why. Ideally, your Giant Goal will have been thoughtfully chosen after considering many different factors. This article from the Sidekick / HubSpot team touches on the rigor — and strategic thinking — that goes into setting the right goal.

1. Identify the levers that move your numbers

Break down the big number into finer and finer detail

Typically, your Giant Goal is going to be a lagging indicator, made up of a nested series of leading indicators. You want to find out what those leading indicators are so that you can influence your Giant Goal.

Let’s take ARR for example. Say your goal is “Increase ARR 50% year-over-year.”

We can break down ARR (annual revenue) into MRR (monthly revenue). If we increase MRR, then ARR will increase.

Here is how to calculate MRR:

what is mrr calculation saas metrics
Calculation for Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR)

Given this formula, we can identify the levers within each variable. Let’s take new MRR, for example. New MRR is revenue that comes from brand new paying customers. There are a couple places you can get new paying customers:

  • Existing free users who upgrade to a paid plan
  • Brand new customers who sign up for the first time and pay

Within those buckets, there are even further levers to pull.

  • Which subscription plan do you want to focus on? e.g. premium versus professional
  • What terms do you want to focus on? e.g. monthly versus annual payments
  • Which product offering do you want to focus on? e.g. platform tools with multiple entry points

And you can go even deeper from there: Should you focus on optimizing trial conversion rate or getting more trialists? Which acquisition channels should you focus on?

What you might end up with is a tiered set of levers that look like this:

ARR
→ MRR
→ → New MRR
→ → → New MRR from business plans
→ → → → New MRR from business plans due to an increase in trial conversion rate

When it starts feeling like the movie Inception (“We have to go deeper“), then you’re doing it right.

2. Make a bet on a lever

Choose a lever that you will work on, then get to it

Once you’ve identified your levers, then it’s time to pick one. This selection can happen in a number of ways and depends on the context in which your company and goal exist.

I’ve found that marketing teams tend to have one of three goals:

  • Grow a thing (revenue, traffic, leads)
  • Brand a thing (awareness, reach, sentiment)
  • Ship a thing (deliver value by a specified time)

For growth goals, a quantitative model can reveal the best opportunities for maximum impact and influence. There is a lot of great detail in this blog post by Alex Birkett about how to think about growth models, including this screenshot of a model in action:

Sidekick growth model spreadsheet.png

The science of building a growth model would be a whole ‘nother blog post.

Quantitative models work really well with growth goals. But a model isn’t the only way to pick a lever. For growth and for brand goals, there can be a lot of value in taking a more qualitative approach to assessing your company’s needs and context. Models like the Intriguing Metric can be handy for identifying the lever with the best potential.

Let’s run through an example with the goal “Reposition your brand to serve the Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) space.”

We’ll first want to turn that goal into a SMART goal. Let’s say that we want to increase brand awareness survey responses from a score of 40 to a score of 60.

The levers for brand awareness can be vast. There’s advertising and content and social and influencers and so many more options. One way I might think about assessing them is to start with the validated areas that have worked so far — the lightest lifts and quickest wins, if you will — and focus there first.

For instance, if you have a blog, then your first lever to be on might be pivoting the content strategy.

If you have a strong social media following, then your first lever might be some reconfigured content and themes on social.

At the end of the day, the best way to move forward with a Giant Goal is to get to work. And track your progress every step of the way.

Inaction is the biggest pitfall of a Giant Goal.You may not choose the right lever every time, but by choosing levers, period, you’ll set yourself up well to learn and improve and make steady progress.