We all have had the experience: setting your personal objectives and defining your annual goals according to business plans for that year. Scratching your head and trying to figure out what the heck I’m going to write in there.

Here is what I think is the problem and maybe the solution.

The Grand Plan

Your company often has a set of macro goals expressed in an annual business plan (e.g. generate X amount of money, grow user base by X amount, …). This plan is usually just a wishlist and useless as concrete objectives as they are vague and doesn’t tell you how you are going to achieve them.

So we break them down to more tangible micro goals in an annual roadmap. This large roadmap then gets broken down further into quarterly roadmaps and then to smaller chunks of sprint plans.

Plans are Guesses

The reality is that plans are guesses and at best are intentions.

That’s why you revise your plans frequently (quarterly, every other month, every 2 weeks/sprint) to make sure they are what you really intend to do now once you’ve progressed forward in time and know more about the state of the world.

The Dilemma

Lets walk along a common scenario here:

It is recommended to you to pick goals that are aligned with the annual plan in the beginning of the year. Lets say you pick a project from the list of annual guesses and say that by the end of the year, to develop the super idea called project A.

What happens when in the next quarterly roadmap, someone decides that project A is not a good project anymore. Or it’s not a priority. What happens to your goal?

There’re two options: you either say that OK, I will also revise my annual goals with roadmap updates. Or you say screw your new plan, I’ve to work on project A.

The Path of Change:

If you choose to change your goals because the roadmap now is different, what’s the point of annual goals anyway? Why can’t you just say that your goal for this year is to work on the roadmap and finish projects there? Isn’t that why the company actually hired you?

The Path of Resistance:

You can choose to not to work on the roadmap and say that you’re going to work on project A as 8 months ago you agreed to do it with your boss and there’s no way to change it. Unless, this is an explicit process in your organisation (more on this to follow), you’re probably going to have to spend your own time to work on that project as you will also be working on the revised roadmap.

What now?

So how to you set your annual goals?

Depending on your organisation, you’re more likely to be in the path of change bucket. For this category, I believe growing as a better individual, contributor, thinker, and teammate is what really matters. Hence, your personal goals should reflect technical and personal skills that you want to improve on as these kind of goals are unlikely to change and is essential no matter where you’re or which project you’re working on or which team you’re part of.

The more interesting scenario of the path of resistance will work if your organisation is drastically different than norm and explicitly acknowledges autonomy in selecting and implementing goals that an individual believes in, even if those goals are different to what the organisation right now guesses to be the right ones to pursue.

Notes:

So the premise here was that you pick your annual goals from a list of possible concrete options the company is set to explore in the roadmap.

You might say that I will pick something that’s not there. But then you’re directly in the path of resistance domain. How are you going to balance working on this versus the day to day sprint work.

You might say that I will generalise and say something like develop 3 new features or fix 20% more bugs. But again these are as good as just saying I will work on the roadmap as all of those 3 new features are in the roadmap and more bug fixes is also a goal somewhere there.

The same is true if the roadmap doesn’t change and you actually finish working on project A. Still you could have just said, I will work on the roadmap and it would have been fine.

I’d love to hear your experiences around this topic and what have worked for you in past as this is the best I’ve got, so feel free to comment.

These are solely my personal views. They are based on my experiences of working in technology startups, so your mileage will vary based on your past experiences.