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Non-Goals: What They are and How to Set Them

Learn why setting non-goals is just as important as setting SMART goals and objectives. Plus, how to set non-goals!

By Hannah Ross  •   August 11, 2022  •   6 min read

While you may be taking the time to set goals, chances are you aren’t setting or defining your non-goals. Many people fail to recognize the importance of non-goals, largely because they aren’t talked about very often. Not only does setting non-goals help provide more clarity for you and your teammates, but doing so also helps foster transparency. 

What are non-goals? 

While non-goals may not be the norm for some, many successful leaders, including Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, claim that setting or outlining non-goals can be just as important as your usual goal setting. In contrast to goal setting, the process of identifying non-goals helps pinpoint what should be avoided while you work towards your goals—while knowing what you’re working towards is important, it’s equally as beneficial to identify what you should avoid. 

Non-goals can be used to identify something that you won’t be focusing on immediately. Your team won’t be expending any effort on these matters, and your attention will instead be solely directed towards completing your shared goals. While you won’t currently be focusing on your non-goals, they may be revisited at a later date by a different team or once the main goals or objectives have been met.

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The benefits of setting non-goals

1Sets clear expectations 

As stated above, knowing what to avoid while working on a project can be equally as beneficial as knowing what to work towards. Identifying non-goals adds specificity to your goals and helps you and your teammates know what to expect from start to finish, since you’ll have clear expectations from the very first conversation. If you don’t take the time to clearly establish, communicate, and document your non-goals in relation to your current project, you may find your team drifting away from your mission. 

2Provides clarity 

Clarity is key when leading a team towards success. While you may think goal setting is enough, it may not be. If you don’t take the time to define your non-goals, you may run the risk of miscommunication. Determining what your non-goals are gives you an extra layer of protection; if your goals aren’t clear enough, your teammates will be able to reference your non-goals for additional information. 

3Increases transparency 

Teams that trust each other are proven to work more effectively, and identifying your non-goals helps foster a more transparent environment. Not only are you teaching your teammates what they should be doing, but you’re also blatantly telling them what to avoid. If your teammates uncover a new avenue while working on your project but you’ve already identified this piece as a non-goal, you can be honest and let them know that the avenue has already been identified as a non-goal and that your team won’t be allocating any resources towards it at this time. This level of transparency helps foster trust and open communication while strengthening working relationships and nurturing collaboration. 

4Controls scope of work

Managing a team can be difficult. You’re balancing your own schedule, managing projects, and guiding your direct reports as they work towards bringing projects to fruition. As a busy manager, you may occasionally find it difficult to manage or control your scope of work. Luckily, if you’ve taken the time to identify non-goals, controlling your scope of work becomes much easier. Letting your team in on your shared non-goals will ensure everyone’s working on what they’re supposed to, when they’re supposed to. Instead of getting sidetracked by a new idea or different problem, you’ll be able to reassure your teammates that they’ve spotted a non-goal; you can then help them redirect their energy elsewhere. 

5Increases overall buy-in

Achieving overall buy-in from your teammates can be difficult, especially when they lack direction. One of the most important tactics you can use to achieve an overall buy-in from your teammates is clearly communicating the problem you’re trying to solve and providing a thorough action plan. Identifying your non-goals helps you achieve buy-in as you’re able to provide extra information. Not only will your teammates understand exactly what they’re working towards, but they’ll also be able to rule out what not to do when they’re feeling stuck. 

How to set non-goals 

1Get clear on your mission 

Getting clear on your mission and setting a North star is the most important part of any project. In fact, it’s proven that teammates work more efficiently when working towards a shared goal or North star.  However, if you and your teammates don’t know what you’re doing, you won’t be able to determine what you shouldn’t be doing. In short, without a North star, your team won’t be able to get clarity.  

2Brainstorm a list of goals

You can’t achieve your group objectives if you don’t first take the time to set clear goals; to set excellent goals, you should take some time to brainstorm. Brainstorming goals with your teammates will help get everyone on the same page and ensure everyone feels included in the goal-setting process. Ensuring everyone is on the same page right out of the gate will also create a sense of alignment and cohesion. After you’ve brainstormed, you’ll be able to determine your goals and work backwards to identify your non-goals. 

3Practice ruthless prioritization

If you fail to organize, plan, and prioritize, you won’t be able to be successful. Each one of these practices are key in facilitating a productive environment that attributes to success at work. Being organized and practicing ruthless prioritization can be as simple as creating a checklist at the start of each day, or as complex as creating a quarterly business plan. Being organized is essential, no matter what your final goal or outcome may be, and ruthless prioritization will help you get there. 

In episode 48 of the Supermanagers Podcast, Amanda Goetz, the founder of House of Wise, says:

“I ruthlessly prioritize how I approach my days. And usually, that means no meetings before 11:30, I get that time to push things forward, that takes my brain power, and I’m on offense.” 

4Document the goals that are low priority

Similar to the way that identifying your non-goals is just as important as defining your goals, documenting your goals that are low priority is equally as important as identifying your most important goals. Many refer to non-goals as secondary goals, meaning they’re still goals, but they just aren’t a current focal point. Documenting goals that are a low priority may help you decide on your non-goals—these low priority goals may even end up being your secondary or non-goals. 

5Track high-impact, high-priority goals 

If you don’t take the time to track your high-impact, high-priority goals, you’ll never know how far you’ve come. Tracking your OKR progress ensures you’re able to nip any potential issues in the bud. If you fail to track your progress, you may not realize if your teammates aren’t fulfilling their duties. Tracking your progress and zeroing in on key benchmarks will ensure you’re able to gauge success and make adjustments if your team isn’t on track. Track objectives as part of your meeting workflow through Fellow’s Objective tool.

6Create a goal-setting cadence to revisit the non-goals—and repeat this process!

Creating a goal-setting cadence is just as important as tracking your goals. Creating a cadence will ensure you’re consistently on top of everything and able to make adjustments when needed. 

Example of a non-goal

Non-goals can essentially be defined as something that you or your teammates will avoid working on while you work to achieve your goals. While you set goals to gain a deeper understanding of what you should be working on, non-goals serve as parameters for what should be avoided. 

Say your teammates have a goal of shipping a product by Q2, but one of them uncovers another massive bug. While this bug may undoubtedly be an issue, it may be defined as a non-goal if your teammates don’t have the resources or capacity to take it on in tandem with your actual goals. 

Are you ready to start setting non-goals? 

If you haven’t already harnessed the power of setting non-goals, doing so will be transformational. You and your teammates will have more clarity, you’ll reduce the risk of miscommunication, and you’ll foster an environment that prioritizes open communication and transparency.

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