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Goal Setting and Action Planning

Of the various topics and themes that are recognised as being able to make a genuine difference, the issues of goal setting and action planning are two that seem to stand out as being well accepted within management and personal development fields. It is an essential skill within the RESOLVE model and approach since the successful outcome of the meeting will be an agreement. This agreement will be translated into goals, which will then need to be planned before they are actioned.

Kurt Lewin’s early work on levels of aspiration was primarily developed by Edwin Locke in the 1960s, which he continued to develop over 30 years with the support of Gary Latham.

The research revealed a clear relationship between goal setting and improved performance, and shows that when set a goal, people will channel effort toward accomplishing it, which will in turn impact on performance: therefore, demonstrating how goal setting affects individual behaviour.

Overall, having a goal:

  • Narrows an individual’s attention. It directs their efforts to undertaking activities that are relevant to the goal, and away from actions that are irrelevant to it

  • Leads to more effort; individuals are more likely to work more intensely than they would otherwise

  • Supports persistence; an individual is more likely to work through setbacks when pursuing a goal

  • Affects how people think and approach tasks – they become outcome orientated

In addition, the nature and process of goal setting is significant: it is not just the act itself, and that both internal and external factors affected the process.

Acceptance and belief

If the goals are set by a 3rd party, individuals will accept the goal if it is seen as significant and realistic. Individuals want to know that what they are trying to achieve is something of value, with meaning or importance. This understanding helps them maintain progress, particularly when things do not go as planned. In addition, they have to believe that it is an attainable goal: goals that are too ambitious have the opposite to the desired effect, and serve to demotivate.

Conversely, goals that are too simple miss an opportunity, since individuals are more likely to be motivated to attain a goal if they feel it has the appropriate degree of difficulty. Clearly this is a grey area, where the ideal can be hard to find, although including the individual in the process makes an obvious difference.


An effective aspect of the goal setting process is to involve the individual in determining the outcomes and level of difficulty; being involved affects personal accountability and increases belief in attainment and heightens commitment. From an internal perspective, personal involvement may be driven by acknowledgement of their individual capability, a desire for recognition by others, or self reward for completion of a particular task.

Goal Specificity

Goals that are too vague do little to foster ambition and motivation. The more specific they are the more likely they will affect performance. Removal of any ambiguity in terms of why, who, what, when, where and how, allows an individual to focus on the necessary behaviours and actions that enable them to achieve the goal.

Goals that are specific and measurable are more effective since they provide an external reference point, which not only allows an individual to gauge progress, but also serves as bench mark against which a 3rd party can use the feedback process. They also support the notion of accountability; where the visibility is another factor that strongly supports commitment.

Feedback Process

Working in isolation on a goal presents many challenges. Without any sense of completion individuals remain unaware of whether they are making headway or not, which makes it hard to assess the actual level of effort required to achieve the goal. Since the success of a particular outcome is dependent on the processes used for its achievement, having access to the feedback loop allows an individual to examine their methods and procedures and to spot any areas for development, particularly if it becomes clear that the goal is not going to be achieved.

Individuals therefore need to engage in the feedback process to understand both what they have achieved so far (the outcome), which includes celebrating any successes, and how well they are applying their chosen methods (the process). Both aspects will affect the energy applied and productivity, since the individual will feel that their efforts are being recognised and acknowledged.

Critically, involving individuals in the feedback process, as opposed to providing a critique on progress and process, not only generates clear ‘joint’ understanding of why the goal has or has not been achieved, it increases commitment, motivation and self-belief.

Goal Setting Structures

Eventually, the subject of goal setting was examined within the genre of leadership and management; it was from here that the concept of SMART first evolved.

Initially SMART stood for:

S – Specific

M – Measurable

A – Achievable

R – Realistic

T – Time bound

As a tool, it encompasses the theory and work of the researchers, and as a concept, SMART applies to how a goal is written, e.g.:

“There is much room for improvement here” would not meet SMART criteria

“Following our discussion, we agreed that in order to get the grade B you want for your UCAS entry form, you would spend 30mins each evening, for the remaining 5 weeks of the term, revising for your maths A level”, is much closer to what is required.


Goals must be specific if they are going to affect motivation and lead to improved performance. A clear unambiguous outcome must be stated.

So, a goal of “run further each week” as part of a fitness program is too vague. “Over the next 3 months, increase your weekly mileage by one mile every two weeks” is more specific.


Goals must be measurable in order to assess progress and monitor performance. An end point ensures individuals know when the goal is achieved.

Run the local half marathon in a minimum time of 2 hours 7 mins, beating your previous best by 2 ½ minutes.


A goal must be attainable.

In our running example, completing a ½ marathon in less than 2 hours is a typical bench mark for most casual runners. However, with a personal best of 2 hours 9 ½ mins this is unlikely – obviously depending on the volume and amount of training.


The goal must be challenging, yet realistic.

Given that the average runner probably runs 2-3 times per weeks, and that they have 3 months to work on improving their level of fitness, beating their current personal best by 2 ½ mins, or 11 seconds per mile is a realistic target – assuming they stay injury free.


In order for goals to affect motivation and performance positively, goals must be time-bound.

The running goal includes both short and long term time scales, which keeps the overall goal within a relative perspective.

Inevitably, this acronym has evolved and there are now several variations on the use of SMART:

SSimple, Significant, StrategicMMeaningful, Mission-related, MotivatedAAction-based, Achievable, AdvantageousRRelevant, Rational, ReachableTTangible, Thorough, Tactful


Less well known, but equally value is the concept of applying the acronym POWER to the goal setting process, which also encapsulates much of theory, but critically personalises the outcomes and considers practical aspects associated with how it will be achieved.



W = WHAT SPECIFICALLY: Who, where, when, what and how specifically?


R = RESOURCES What resources will you need – both mentally and physically?


The goal must be stated in the positive: not, I want to stop smoking, but I want to feel healthy again. Not, I want to stop having arguments with my boss, but I want to be able to discuss work related issues in a healthy, honest manner. Then consider:

  • What do you want?

  • What will achieving your goal give you?

  • How will achieving this goal be of benefit to you?


  • What will you do to achieve it?

  • In what way will you know that this is your goal?

  • How will you be in control of this goal?

  • Why is this important and relevant to you?

What specifically

  • What will you be doing when you have achieved it?

  • Who else is involved?

  • When will you have achieved it?

  • How will you achieve it?

  • What and how does it relate to your work (or personal life)?


  • What will you see, hear and feel when you achieve your goal, internally (with your emotions) and externally?

  • What will be the consequence of achieving it?

  • What will you gain?

  • What will you lose?


  • What will you need to achieve your goal – physical resources, money, skills, knowledge, co-operation, partnerships, time, support, premises etc.?

  • Who do you need to support you?

  • What inner resources will you need? e.g., strength, persistence, dedication etc.


“Goal Setting is not the same as goal achievement!”

Setting a clear goal is only part of the success process, albeit an important one. No goal is complete without a robust and structured method that will ensure its achievement. An action plan moves from having a goal to doing something to achieve it.

“Actions speak louder than words”

Action planning is best considered to be a process which not only helps you to focus your ideas, but also to helps you to decide what steps you need to take to achieve particular goals that you may have. It sets out what you want to achieve over a given period of time.

There are many similarities between completing a goal and managing a project, so some of the project management tools such as Gantt Charts may be useful. What is required is some sort of action planning template, which encompasses the whole process – there are a great many to choose from, some more complex than others.

Setting out the action planning process as a series of steps could include the following, depending on the nature and difficulty of the goal:

  • Be clear about what it is you want to achieve – set a goal and ensure it is written in a SMART format. Commit this to paper and share it with others who will be involved!

  • Break the whole process down into appropriate stages; goals often have objectives – smaller, often incremental tasks that support the achievement of the overall goal. Objectives also need to be SMART. Above identify the small first step that in terms of achievement is a guaranteed certainty.

  • Prioritise the tasks: identify important milestones and consider factors of importance and urgency.

  • Identify the resources required: time knowledge

  • Set aside dates / times to monitor and review progress

  • Celebrate and reward progress – it helps keep all those associated with the goal on board, even if it is just yourself.

Personal Development Action Plan


Having completed some sort of self-assessment or analysis, use this form to record what actions you are going to undertake to achieve your own goals and objectives. Be specific in terms of the issue, what will success look like, what you are actually going to do, and when you are going to complete it by. Your objectives should be aligned to your goal.

Development Goal:OBJECTIVES:

What small step or sub-task do I have to achieve, or improve, that will help me achieve my goal?


How will I measure my improvements and recognise success?

ACTIONS – e.g.

What will I do to achieve my objectives?

What will I be doing differently?

Who do I need to work with


When will I achieve this objective?

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