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A New Goal-Setting Framework For A Team That Doesn’t Work on Projects Together

Goal-setting has always been one of my favorite activities. I love the feeling of accomplishing something within a set timeframe and getting to cross it off a big list of other goals. I love seeing the progress and celebrating the achievement — in fact, I love it so much that you’ll find me routinely setting and revising goals throughout the year, both at work and for my personal life.

We recently made the shift away from OKRs as a company-wide goal-setting framework, and we started experimenting at an area-wide level with custom goal-setting frameworks instead.

One such system: a hybrid Warren Buffet framework.

I’m excited to walk you through the Warren Buffet process we’re using on the marketing team to come up with goals, as well as share a run down of what goals have been like at Buffer in the past and why we’re doing what we are now.

A very brief history of goals at Buffer

When I started at Buffer in February of 2016, the whole team had just switched to trying OKRs, there was no one main system that the whole team had used prior to this. I was thrilled to try this new goal setting framework I’d never used before.

OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are widely popular because they’re what Google uses. They involve setting objectives for the quarter and then pairing each objective with key results that detail whether or not that objective is accomplished. There’s a bit more to them, which you can read here, but that’s the jist of it.

After a year of using OKRs at Buffer, we decided it was time to switch it up again at the end of Q1 2017.

Initially, we thought we may move to Wildly Important Goals (WIGs) another great system. Instead, we decided to follow in Basecamp’s lead and give six-week cycles a shot.

The six-week cycle outlined by Basecamp details a projects-based approach where whole teams work on a few projects to complete by the end of the six weeks. Our engineering, product, and data teams have just started experimenting with the first 6-week cycle.

We’ve noticed that project-based cycles aren’t as seamless of a fit for our other areas of the company because these areas might not work on projects together.

Our marketing team is a good example of this. There are eight of us on the team, and while we’re all on one team, we each own individual areas like community, public relations, the Buffer Social blog, The Science of Social Media podcast, and many others.

Occasionally, a few of us will work together on one big project. But that is usually one or two people and not all eight of us. This is what makes project-based goals a bit tough to extrapolate.

Our solution? We’re experimenting with operating in six-week cycles alongside the other teams but adding our own flair and our own individual goals.

Marketing’s goal for goals

We felt it would be amazing for team cohesion, simplicity, and camaraderie to all use the same goal-setting system — and even keep our goals in one place so that we can move quickly as a team and see each other’s progress.

This team-wide goal-setting would cover the day-to-day work that we do and the areas that we own, and it would be in addition to any company-wide goal-setting that we may apply later on (e.g. WIGs).

Here’s what we are experimenting with: a modified Warren Buffet framework that helps us simplify and cycle our goals.

As a team, we can aim to set goals in six-week cycles, then we take two weeks (like Basecamp recommends) to reflect and plan our goals for the next six-week cycle, and so on.

The Modified Warren Buffet Framework

I’ve long admired the original framework for setting goals from Warren Buffet, where you write down 25 things you want to accomplish in your career, and from that pick the top five as the focus and put the other 20 on an “avoid at all costs” list. Over the years, I’ve adopted this framework for my personal goals, with a few slight modifications and with a focus on shorter-term goals.

I’ll walk you through the three steps we took as a marketing team — and you can take, too — to come up with top three goals for each member of the team.

Let’s do some goal-setting! ?

Step 1: Create 10 goals

Brainstorm and come up with 10 goals related to your work on the team that can be accomplished in six weeks or less, and write them down. ?

The 10 goals should be SMART goals, which means:

Remember to focus on goals and not tasks. A good way to remember this is that tasks describe how you spend your time, whereas goals are your results.

For instance:

  • Task: Record 6 minisodes in 6 weeks
  • Goal: Increase podcast downloads by 20% in 6 weeks by releasing valuable content

Here’s an example of 10 goals I might come up with for my role as PR Specialist, Open blog editor, and podcaster. I sent these to the team to demonstrate what SMART goals look like (not because these are my goals.)

  • Increase Open traffic by 20% by putting out 12 high-quality posts about transparency and culture in 6 weeks
  • Publish an Open blog post that gets over 100,000 page views in the first month of being live
  • Get 15% more podcast downloads by booking one super well-known guest (like Ryan Holiday)
  • Increase podcast downloads by 15% by putting out valuable content like minisodes consistently
  • Increase the reach of our content by bringing on two new syndication partners, one for a focus on open blog and one for social blog
  • Get coverage for a new Buffer product feature in a large tech publication like TechCrunch or The Next Web
  • Get coverage for Buffer’s culture in an enormous publication like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times
  • Release a new data study with numbers we’ve never shared transparently before on the Open blog
  • Partner with another company to launch a unique future of work campaign and have the timelines set by the end of the 6 weeks
  • Build a strong set of writers for the Open blog by having 5 new Buffer teammates to draft posts

Step 2: Assign a tag to each goal

Next, go through and add a tag to each goal with the category that it falls into.

For us on the marketing team, this tagging system works quite well since several of us work on multiple projects at once. A few examples:

  • Alfred could have tags for goals related to Medium and the Social blog.
  • Arielle could have tags for goals related to bufferchat, the Slack community, and in-person events.
  • Brian could have tags for goals related to the podcast, core social media, and creating video content.

The tagging system should be unique for each person. ?

Come up with your tags, and assign them to each of your 10 goals.

Here’s how I usually do that:

My tags would be Open, PR and Podcast. ?

For my personal goals, I use tags like:

  • Personal projects
  • Health
  • Financial
  • Professional

Step 3: Pick three goals to focus on

This is the hard part. Refining the list from 10 to the three that you will focus on. What I do is pick one goal per tag that I have.

Imagine my tags are PR, Podcast and Open blog. I’ll have one goal for each of those tags that I focus on. These will be my main priorities for each category.

I end up with my top goal for PR, my top goal for the podcast, and my top goal for the Open blog.

Then I’ll go through and add in the second priority to the list as well.

This isn’t because I’ll be working on two things at once. I’ll still only work on the top priority goal for each of the categories. What this means is that as soon as I complete one of the goals in one of the categories, I already have the next goal I will work on.

This way, our goals will continue to rotate.

Because of this, these goals don’t need to all be the same timeframe: they can be anywhere from a goal that takes two weeks to accomplish, to a goal that takes six weeks to accomplish.

This is the first time we’re trying this on the marketing team, but we’re quite excited about it! We’ll be sure to report back on whether or not this changes, and we plan on sharing more about how 6-week cycles are going once we’ve wrapped up our first one.

Over to You

It’s as simple as that! I absolutely adore chatting goals so I’d be over the moon happy to talk with you in the comments about this.

  • Have you ever tried the Warren Buffet method before?
  • How do you set goals personally?
  • How does your team and company set goals?
  • Andy Bradbury

    Nice article Hailley, really enjoyed it.

  • Jane Anderson

    This is excellent. Just reading through your goals I have to wonder how would you even accomplish them? Very impressive to say the least. 100,000 page views? How is that even within your control? Increase Open traffic by 20% by putting out 12 high-quality posts – that would be amazing and you probably did it, but how? And my favorite is Build a strong set of writers for the Open blog by having 5 new Buffer teammates to draft posts. All your goals are amazing and I would love to be at the meeting when you discuss how you fared and what you are doing to a) keep going if you missed or b) set next goals because you did so well on these. Even though I worked for over 30 years for larger organizations, there was goal setting, but very little follow through. The goals were more or less project based, not really goals like you have here.

    • Hi @disqus_2zRicZTlIs:disqus! Oh, great point. I may have done a very poor job here of explaining that these are just examples I came up with to show the team how to make specific and actionable goals.

      My actual goals in the end involve getting two press mentions, creating two new syndication partnerships, and publishing regularly on the Open blog, which more specifically is two posts a week with the majority being timely to things we’re currently doing at Buffer.

      I’m going to make some edits to the post to make sure that my copy reflects that those initial goals are examples. Thanks for reading through and sharing your thoughts!

  • Love this! Very actionable. Thank you :)

    • Thank you so much for reading, @madelinepuckette:disqus!

  • Brian Munkholm

    Could you elaborate why you abandoned OKR’s?

  • Hi Hailley,

    Great post! I’m as impressed by Buffer’s continuous experimentation with new and better ways to work as the details of your new goal setting strategy.

    Speaking of details, here are a couple I’d love to hear more about your approach to:

    1. The six weeks of working and two weeks of reflection and planning your next seem powerful to me, important enough to think of this as an eight week cycle, rather than six. So I’m wondering if there’s more theory you can share or point us to around that ratio? Also, can/should it be applied to longer or shorter time periods, like 1-3 year plans, or your daily to-do list?

    2. Regarding your tagging system, is the number of tags crucial? By selecting three tags for your work, you get a neat way to focus on three 6-week #1 priority goals, with back-up “what to do next” #2s. You mention having four tags for your personal goals. Which gives you seven tags altogether. Do you assign a #1 priority to a goal in all seven each cycle?

    I’ve been working on a “five tag” approach (using your terminology) with goals for improvement in physical, intellectual, emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being. I believe it’s important to see these as holistic and integrated aspects of our lives (and, btw, that the “work” and “financial” parts take care of themselves if you’re getting these right).

    But I’m wondering when Buffett’s advice to cut your 25 life goals down to five and yours to cut each list of 10 down to 3 with backups kicks in? Is it important to the “A” in SMART that we keep the #1s down to … what, three, or four, in each planning cycle? Or is it better to break off smaller chunks, as you describe, so that we’re getting something done on each of our categories or tags each time?

    Whew! You guys are always getting my head spinning! In the best way, of course. What do you think?

    • Hi @Tom_Collins:disqus! Thanks for the super thoughtful comment, wow, you’ve got my head spinning now! :D

      1. You’re totally right that it’s really an eight-week cycle here. For some context, I adapted this framework to the cycle that we’re on from a product perspective. In theory, these goals can be as long or as short as you want. For the six-week cycle format specifically, we adopted that one from Basecamp ( who seem to always be running in six-week cycles. On our end, I’m not sure if that’s how we’ll move forward, but we’ll definitely update the Open blog when we know more about how six-week cycles are working for us and if it’ll be the way forward. :)

      2. The number of tags is not at all crucial, except I suppose in the sense that Warren Buffet believes there shouldn’t ever be more than 5 (assuming one goal per tag here.)

      For the example you gave, you would assign a #1 and #2 priority in the same tag – so I’d have my first PR task, and then when it’s done I can move right to my second one, it’s not exactly a separate section. Does that make sense?

      I love your five tag approach – sounds super well-rounded!

      The reason I cut down from 10 to 3 instead of 25 to 5 is that I usually have trouble coming up with more than 10 goals, haha!

      I do personally have a “rule of three” where I feel like I can always remember three things, but anything more and I write it down. Works for grocery lists or goals.

      Let me know if I answered your questions here! Really good one 🙌 Really appreciate you sharing all of your thoughts here!

  • That’s pretty interesting! It’s already hard to come up with 10 really fleshed out goals, then you choose to throw 7 into the back burner to focus on 3. I hope it helps you get more focused.w

  • I love the idea of having things that you will avoid!

    This is something I’m wrangling with personally.

    I really prescribe to the agile manifesto piece that says: “Optimising the amount of work not done is essential”

    We’re so good at lying to ourselves and not focusing on what’s important.

    I’ll have an experiment with the framework and maybe I can bring it to my company too!

  • Cami Bird

    How has this system evolved now that we’re almost 2 years away from it? Have you continued this system?

    • Hi Cami

      Thanks so much for the question. We’ve moved away from this framework. It served us really well, we just ended up evolving our team-wide goals and so individual goal-setting took a back seat.

      Have you tried it with your team?

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