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The Future of Work Issue

Connect your goals and innovation will follow

The 2023 Anatomy of Work Global Index found that employees who understand how their work ladders up to the company’s mission are more likely to describe their company as “innovative.”

Words by Alison Bowen

Any manager or employee knows that setting goals is critical to keeping a company on track at every level all year long. But goals can also do something extraordinary.

Goals can lay the groundwork for innovation across an organization.

Asana’s 2023 Anatomy of Work Global Index found that transparent organizational goals connected to individual goals helped entire businesses work together better.

The annual Anatomy of Work Global Index surveyed the behaviors and attitudes of 9,615 knowledge workers across Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S.

The survey data revealed something big: Seventy percent of workers at companies with clear objectives that were tied to individual goals felt their company was an innovative place to work. Just 12% of workers at companies with no clear organizational objectives tied to personal goals felt their company was an innovative place to work.

Why clear goals matter

Stanford University economics professor Nick Bloom, Ph.D., tells The Workback employees and employers benefit from setting clear goals.

“I teach hundreds of students every year at Stanford, and they really want to go and work for a firm that evaluates, appreciates, and rewards their performance,” Bloom says.

“For firms, that’s what you want; you want to be known as a place that rewards high performance because you recruit high performance.”

In its most successful form, goal-setting combines responsibility and visibility. Maintaining clear goals, setting them transparently, and creating accountability can ensure everyone is in the loop on expectations and priorities.

A strong goal structure can also help guide decisions, Axios HQ CEO Roy Schwartz tells The Workback.

“When you’ve documented goals, and they cascade from the top all the way down, you clearly know if something you’re doing is not going to drive one of your CEO’s goals ultimately,” he said. “When we’ve done that exercise both at Axios HQ and at Axios Media, we have quickly realized when there’s a lack of alignment or if there’s a project we should cancel because it’s not aligned to our top-level goals.”

87% of workers at companies with clear, connected goals say their organization is well-prepared to meet customer expectations—more than double those without.

87% of workers at companies with clear, connected goals say their organization is well-prepared to meet customer expectations—more than double those without.

How goals create resilience

It’s no surprise that clear, connected goals can positively impact in-house work. But the ripple effects of those goals, measured in the Anatomy of Work Global Index, are worth examining by leaders wondering how connected goals can help a firm serve its customers.

Employees with connected goals are more confident in the business. According to the Anatomy of Work survey, 87% of workers with individual goals tied to company-wide goals say their company is well-prepared to meet customer expectations. Just 37% of surveyed workers without clear goals felt their company could meet customer expectations.

When goals are clear and achieved, it can create breathing room for employees to have the space to think creatively—and innovate.

Go from reactive to proactive with a work platform that fits your future.

David C. Edelman

“If collaboration is goal-driven, you can things out the door faster.” — David C. Edelman

David C. Edelman, a Harvard lecturer, and former Aetna CMO, tells The Workback that goals help align a team and foster more vital collaboration.

“If collaboration is goal-driven, you can get things out the door faster,” Edelman says. “You can test and learn your way to drive faster growth. You’ve got the slack to be able to be creative. You’ve got the team to get your ideas out the door faster. You got the measurement on the back end to know what works. 

“The faster you can iterate, the faster you’ll figure out what will drive growth and feed it to make it happen.”

Edelman tells The Workback that giving a team clear goals fosters focus and activates autonomy. People can track their own progress, which helps them see results first-hand.

Connected goals can also support faster collaboration.

 At companies where individual objectives were linked to company goals, employees were also far more likely than the average knowledge worker to 

  • Share information (83% vs. 24%)
  • Ensure information was getting to the right people (83% vs. 27%) 
  • Keep key players informed (81% vs. 26%)

Fundamentally, more people felt it was easy to work with others at companies where everyone’s goals were connected. Seven out of ten people at companies with clear goals said it was easy to work with stakeholders in other functions, compared to just one in four workers at companies without connected goals.

How leaders can ensure goals are connected and transparent

The data show that companies are more likely to be successful when employees have individual goals—and they can see how those goals are linked, step-by-step, to those at the very top of the organization.

Goals matter. So how can leaders improve communication about goal-setting at their companies?

Leaders should ensure that individual goals ladder up to the company’s mission and communicate that to everyone on the team. Also, executives must be clear about when and why goals may change so there are no surprises if the goals change.

Carson Tate, founder, and managing partner at Working Simply, sees a straight line from employees who feel they have a goal to their drive to innovate. Leaders should focus “on what’s going to be accomplished—and why it matters.”