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Team Goal-Setting: The Key to Better Team Collaboration and Performance

It's almost impossible for hybrid and distributed teams to work well together without clear team goals. Yet traditional top-down goal-setting is often a slow process and generally fails to engage team leaders and team members. The alternative? Get teams to set their own goals using a collaborative process. Here's how — and why — it works.

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Collaboration in the hybrid era is tough

Collaboration gets tricky when people operate on different rhythms and locations. Yet effective virtual collaboration is key to succeeding in the hybrid era: the Institute for the Future identifies it as a critical future work skill, alongside things such as social intelligence and adaptive thinking.

A physically distributed team is only part of the problem. Teams without clear goals will find it harder to collaborate and perform. Yet many organisations skip team goals in favour of individual goals. Or, if team goals are set, they are almost always pushed straight down onto teams in a traditional fashion, with teams having little say about their goals. Whilst the traditional top-down model works in environments that need high levels of control, it's less suited to businesses that need to foster creativity and growth.

The traditional process doesn't work for most modern businesses because:

  • It reduces autonomy. Effective hybrid working relies on autonomy and needs to leverage it, not work against it. Traditional goal-setting doesn't do that, as teams and individuals receive very little input on the KPIs and metrics they get assigned.

  • It lacks buy-in. People are less motivated to work towards something they don't feel a part of. What's more, top-down goals are always one step (or several steps) removed from the reality of team capacities and challenges.

  • It's slow. In the new world of work, circumstances and context change fast, and a top-down approach can't keep up. Pushing everything down from senior leadership creates bottlenecks and stifles organisational agility.

When organisations fail to focus on team alignment, collaborating in a hybrid environment becomes a huge challenge.

Team goal-setting is the answer

If we want greater collaboration and agility in a business, we must infuse collaboration and agility into the goal-setting process. One of the best ways to do that is to get teams to set their own goals set in a highly collaborative way that gives the team freedom and flexibility to use their judgement about what to focus on. This bi-directional process means we don't tell teams their goals. Instead, we let teams determine what they feel their goals should be based on the business strategy and priorities.

In a bi-directional process, the role of the Exec Team is to paint a picture of the business strategy, priorities and over-arching goals, and teams then autonomously determine the role they'll play in helping the business. Note, business strategy should still allow for input from the entire business; it shouldn't just be developed in a hermetically sealed box by only the Exec Team.

Collaborative team goal-setting creates a two-way flow between team goals and business strategy.

Collaborative team goal-setting begins with a simple question for teams to answer: "Based on our business strategy, what will be the most important priorities for our team to focus on?".

When team goals have been developed, there's usually some back and forth to align between teams and deal with some grey areas. Once team-level goals are clear, individuals can set their own goals to align with their team goals.

You can hear more about this process in action when Bridget (Head of People & Operations, Sensand) talks about Strategy to Action:

The advantages of team goal-setting

Getting aligned on which things matter at a team level using a collaborative process brings several benefits:

  • More team buy-in. More involvement in goal-setting gives team members a stronger sense of ownership and commitment. This is a whole lot better than forcing them to accept goals they don't fully agree with.

  • More collaboration. Team members get a stronger sense of cohesion and team spirit when they work together to set goals.

  • Less friction down the line. Collaborative goal-setting also helps quickly clear up ambiguity around team roles and responsibilities. Talking about these types of thing upfront means you avoid friction and issues later.

  • Greater innovation. A two-way (top-down and bottom-up) process fosters greater innovation, as teams have more opportunities to share their ideas and experiences (see video below).

Team goal-setting in action

Setting team goals isn't a difficult process. It just needs to be prioritised as an important team activity, and you need to set some time aside for clear thought and focus.

To establish a great team goal-setting rhythm, you need to make regular time to set, discuss, and review goals, to the point where these activities operate like clockwork for your team.

The best starting point is to get everyone in your team together at the beginning of the goal-setting period (e.g. start of the quarter) for a goal-setting workshop. An easy way to structure this workshop is as follows:

  1. As a team, review the business strategy, goals and initiatives for the coming quarter.

  2. Get people to brainstorm team goals that align with your business strategy individually.

  3. Discuss the team goal ideas people have come up with, and work as a team to refine and consolidate the ideas into 3-5 clear goals for the team to focus on (for more insights about types of goals to set, read here). Make sure to consider the time, energy and resources at the team's disposal so that the goals set are realistic to achieve.

  4. Map out the details of each goal, including measures and ideas about how you might achieve the goals.

  5. Decide on the next steps (e.g., refining and aligning with other teams, drafting individual-level goals etc.).

  6. Schedule a fortnightly/monthly goal check-in session with the team to discuss learnings and progress.

  7. At the end of the goal-setting period (e.g. end of the quarter), evaluate this quarter's progress, and reset goals for the next quarter.

This simple process gives the team a high degree of clarity, involves the whole team, and helps surface great ideas about how the business priorities can be achieved.


Want a detailed outline of the Team Goal-Setting workshop we use to help teams set awesome goals? Download our Team Goal-Setting Workshop Checklist here.


Keep customer goals front of mind

When goal-setting, it's easy to get drawn into an inward focus. This is why it's useful to articulate your customer goals every time you look at your team goals.

For example, at In The Game, our customers are typically focused on the following:

  • Business growth (revenue and headcount)

  • Improved customer satisfaction (e.g. increased net promoter scores)

  • Increasing engagement scores (typically measured via surveys)

  • Reducing unhealthy team conflict

  • Reducing voluntary turnover

  • Increased bottom-up innovation

  • Increased career mobility

So when we map out our quarterly goals and roadmap, we always revisit this list to determine the most important things to focus on. Bear in mind that your customer goals won't be as specific as internal goals, as the specifics will probably vary from customer to customer. However, keeping the broad goals in mind can help you choose what to work on and what to prioritise.

For best results, don't set and forget

To wind up, here is a quick story:

In 2005, my favourite football team, Liverpool FC, scored their way into the Champions League Final against AC Milan. Liverpool fans had high hopes for the game, but they were dashed when the team plunged 3-0 in the first half against their Italian rivals.

While defeat seemed almost inevitable, what happened after half-time placed the match in the history books as one of the greatest finals of the League tournament, Liverpool went on to score three goals in just six minutes and then clinched the Cup with a penalty shoot-out.

Liverpool's legendary comeback is a fantastic lesson in goal-setting agility. Had the team continued with their original strategy in the match's second half, it's unlikely they'd have won the final. As team manager Rafael Benitez put it in an interview:

"When you concede a second goal, you have to think about changing something. And if you concede a third? Well, then you definitely have to change, and that was very clear."

The takeaway for effective goal-setting? "Set and forget" is one of the biggest mistakes you can make when you set team goals at the start of the quarter and fail to revisit them or discuss progress during the quarter. Instead, aim to

  • Plan for regular team goal check-ins where you take stock of what you've learnt, how you're progressing and what you need to do to stay on track.

  • Sense check the relevance of your goals. Goals should have scope and room to respond to changes in environment and context. If your goals never change during a quarter, then you probably aren't being responsive enough to the environment and what you are learning.

This is something I cover more in my video on half-time team talks:

Ready to implement team goal-setting?

To truly embrace hybrid collaboration, you need to set goals at the team level to increase team agility and speed. A bi-directional goal-setting process empowers people and ensures that your team goals contribute effectively to your wider business strategy. And the good news? It doesn't have to be complicated!


At In The Game, we're all about building seriously great teams. Get in touch here to find out how you can make the team goal-setting process more dynamic and fun using our Team Goals Game.


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