Goal Analysis: How to Analyze Goals (So You Can Meet Them)


Instructional Design Basics

People like you and I have goals: "I want to be a good parent" or "I want to be healthier." Businesses have goals: "We want to be an industry thought leader" or "We want to be cutting edge" or "we want to be lean." And trainers have training goals for their employee learners: "I want them to be motivated" or "I want them to want to do their jobs well."

Of course, the point of having goals is that we want to meet them. But it can be hard to meet a goal if you don't really know what that goal means. Consider our examples above. How does a person know if she's a good parent or healthier? How does a business know when it's an industry thought leader, cutting edge, or lean? And how do trainers know if employees are motivated or want to do their jobs well? These goals are abstractions instead of being concrete.

In this post, we'll show you a method that will help you develop goals that are clearly stated, concrete performances. The reason for doing that is that it makes it easy to tell you've reached the goal. And that's the goal of goals, right?

Goal Analysis

The book Goal Analysis by Robert Mager is a classic in the field of human performance improvement (HPI) and is one of the six volumes of the famous "Mager Six Pack." Mager's book does two nice things:

  • Lays out a simple way to identify goals that are abstractions instead of concrete performances (he calls these "fuzzies")
  • Provides a simple, five-step process for creating concrete, performance-based goals

We'll use Mager's book and his methods as a source for this article. If the article catches your interest, we definitely recommend the book.

Identifying "Fuzzy" Goals (Abstractions)

Many times, a person, business, or trainer will develop a goal that's really an abstraction--what Mager calls a "fuzzy." They're abstractions (or fuzzies) because it's hard or impossible to agree when they've been reached. When a person wants to be "healthy," when a company wants to be "lean," and when a trainer wants employees to "have positive attitudes about their work," they're expressing abstract, fuzzy goals. That's because there's no visible action that we can observe to see if someone is healthy, if a company is lean, or if a worker has a positive attitude.

Or, as Mager puts it in discussing his own examples:

"Intents to develop such states as "favorable attitudes," "deep appreciation," or "sense of pride" are examples of abstractions; they do not tell you what a person would be doing when demonstrating the state or condition, nor do they suggest the behavior that would indicate how you can tell that he or she has done it. On the other hand, items such as "writing," "decanting," and "hopping" are examples of performances; they do tell you what a person would be doing when demonstrating his or her ability to do it."

So this is the first thing to do when you are creating or evaluating goals. Ask yourself if it's concrete and would lead to an observable performance, or if it's fuzzy.

What To Do When You've Got a Fuzzy Goal

If all your goals are concrete, performance-based ones, and you can easily tell if the goal is reached through observation, congratulations. You're done.

But, if you've got a fuzzy on your hands, you've got another question to address: Is this abstract goal really so important?

If you ask yourself that question, give it some thought, and come to the conclusion that it SEEMED important when you said it, but in after-thought it's not that big of a deal, then drop it and you're done.

But maybe you'll decide that yes, it IS important. Great. In that case, you'll have to go through some further steps to "unfuzzy" that abstraction. Or, in other words, to figure out the behaviors that someone would have to perform so that you'd be able to recognize those behaviors as a sign that the goal is reached. And that's what Mager's five-step method is for.

Five Steps of Goal Analysis

The book gives a simple, five-step process for analyzing your goals and making them concrete. Those steps are:

  1. Write down the goal
  2. Write down everything a person would have to do for you to agree that he or she has met the goal
  3. Review the items you listed in step 2 and revise
  4. Write a complete sentence that describes each of the items on your list after step 3
  5. Test the sentences you wrote in step 4 to make sure they're complete

We'll take a further look at each of the steps in the sections below.

Goal Analysis Step 1: Write Down the Goal

Start by putting pen to paper--or, finger to keyboard--and writing down your goal.

Don't worry if it's a complete sentence or a fragment. Just get it down. You don't even have to worry--yet--if it's a performance or a fuzzy. The important thing is to make sure you've got it on paper.

Mager's only caution here is this:

"Make sure your statement describes an intended outcome rather than a process. That way, you won't get bogged down with the problem of means and ends before you get started. Once you know what you are trying to attain, then you can think about the best means of getting there. So, make your goals talk about the ends rather than about the means of attaining those ends. Make the statement say "have a favorable attitude toward barnacles" rather than "learn to have a favorable attitude toward barnacles." Make it read "understand foreign trade" rather than "develop an understanding of foreign trade."

So that's it. Write it and make sure it's an outcome (an end) and not a process (the means to that end). Then move on to step 2.

Goal Analysis Step 2: Write Down Everything a Person Would Have to Do for You to Agree He/She Has Met the Goal

The next step is to take some time to write down everything you'd have to see in order to know that the goal had been met.

The important thing in this step is to just write the ideas down. It's OK if they're not all good ideas, and they probably won't be. But you'll backtrack in step 3 and take of that. So for now, just write down everything that comes to mind.

Mager offers four strategies that can help you do this. They are:

  1. Answer the question "What will I take as evidence that my goal has been achieved?"
  2. Answer the question "Given a room full of people, what is the basis on which I would separate them into two piles--those who had achieved my goal and those who had not?"
  3. Imagine that you're going to ask someone else to determine who has achieved the goal and who hasn't. What instructions would you give that person how to tell if the goal has been met?
  4. Think of a person who you believe has met the goal and write down why you think they've met it. In other words, what does he or she say or do to make you feel this person has achieved this goal?

Mager offers one final tip in case you get stuck at some point here. If you can't think of positive statements that show that someone has met the goal, start by thinking of negative statements that show that someone hasn't met the goal. For example, if your goal is that a person be "pleasant," you can list "frowns," "complains," and "argues" here. Then, you can revise these negative statements into positive ones.

Goal Analysis Step 3: Review the Items You Listed in Step 2 and Revise

Step 3 is all about reviewing your list from step 2 and making it better.

"Making it better." That sounds kinda fuzzy, doesn't it?

So, to make that more concrete and performance-based, here's how to start:

  • Cross out and delete any items that are duplicate other items (redundancies)
  • Cross out and delete items that, now that you give it some more thought, aren't good indications that the goal has been met
  • Place check marks next to items that are fuzzies and/or that represent processes (means) instead of outcomes (ends)

Once you've done that, it's time to rework those fuzzies. To do that:

  • Take every checked item and write it down on a separate piece of paper
  • Treat each of those checked items as if they are a goal--meaning, perform steps 2 and 3 as described above for each

Eventually, your list (which will be on several pieces of paper) will include nothing but concrete, observable performances. When you've gotten that far, you're done with step 3 and ready for step 4.

Goal Analysis Step 4: Write a Complete Sentence That Describes Each of the Items on Your List After Step 3

You'll begin step 4 with you list of performances from step 3 (things that can be "done" and that you can observe to see that they're done).

The performances listed in step 3 might have been a single word, or a short phrase, or a fragment of a sentence. The trick in step 4 is to take each of those statements of performance and turn them into a complete sentence. That sentence, Mager says, should include:

  • Who does it
  • What that person does
  • How well they do it

Let's take a look at an example from Mager's book.

In Mager's example, the goal from step 1 was "good reporting." Then, as a result of completing steps 2 and 3, the goal of "good reporting" was broken down into four observable performances:

  • Identifies routing
  • Determines presentation form
  • Writes report
  • Presents report

And, in step 4, he rewrites those performances this way:

Goal: Good reporting

  1. For each report, the scientist can name the members of senior management to whom the report should be directed for decision-making.
  2. For each report, the scientist can determine (name) the form of presentation that will most clearly communicate the content to a nonscientific audience.
  3. The scientist can prepare a written report that summarizes all the findings, conclusions, and recommendations bearing on the researched issue.
  4. The scientist can report (orally) to the appropriate members of senior management, providing them with all the information they need to take effective action.

What starts as a fuzzy, becomes a chaotic list, and then is transformed into an ordered list of behaviors is now a nicely written series of steps of action.

Goal Analysis Step 5: Test the Sentences You Wrote in Step 4 to Make Sure They're Complete

With luck, you're done after completing step 4.

But relying on luck isn't good enough. So, step 5 is a built-in double-check. For this step, you've got to ask yourself one simple question: "If every item on my list occurs exactly as they're described, will the goal have been met?"

If your answer is yes, then you've met you goal--your goal to complete a goal analysis and create a proper goal, that is. Pat yourself on the back and put this one to bed.

But if your answer is no, there's still some work to do. If you answered no to the question above, you've got to ask yourself another question. This time, it's: "What else would have to happen before I'd agree that the goal has been met?"

Once you've answered that question, add that new item to you list and ask yourself the first question again: "If every item on my list occurs exactly as they're described, will the goal have been met?" If you can answer yes no, you're done. If not, you've got to keep repeating this cycle until you're finished.

Either way, you'll have a full set of performances, each described in a complete sentence that explains who, what, and how well, that in total represent full observable evidence that your goal has been met. You've finished your goal analysis, and now you can move forward to seeing that the goal is met.

What To Do AFTER Your Goal Analysis is Complete

Obviously, you're not done just because you've completed your goal analysis. What the goal analysis does is help you create a road map to getting those goals completed. What you've still got to do is actually complete those goals.

So, here's what to do depending on the type of goal you were analyzing.

  • New Year's resolution (we're throwing this one in since we're writing this on New Year's Day): Achieve those goals during this year.
  • A personal goal: Achieve those goals.
  • A business goal: Inform the workers at your company of the goals, determine which employees are responsible for meeting which goals and how they'll meet them, and then work toward meeting those goals.
  • A training goal for employee learners: Use your goals and the underlying performances to perform a training needs assessment to see if training or some different "intervention" is needed to help reach those goals. If it's training, create learning objectives (or click here) and then design and deliver the training. Finally, evaluate the training to see if it was effective.

Conclusion: Perform a Goal Analysis Before Creating Training

That's it--we hope it was helpful.

If this post has caught your interest, we remind you that the ideas are drawn from the book Goal Analysis by Robert Mager and we recommend that you check it out. His book has extended descriptions, examples, and practice exercises to help you master the procedure we sketched out above.

We'd love to hear your thoughts about the goal analysis procedure listed above and/or about some goals you've got. Hey, we'd even be happy to hear about your new year's resolutions. Would it help you to perform a goal analysis on them? And, of course, we'd welcome if you came back later, after putting this process into action, to let us know how it worked for you.

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