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Abstract illustration of three team members holding arrows and directing them towards a target

Creating absolute clarity of focus - a tool for helping to clarify your focus and goals as a team

Management Futures
October 30, 2023


The first step in creating a high performance culture in any team, is to ‘switch people on’ by engaging them behind a clear focus for what you are trying to achieve, underpinned by a set of measures you can review progress against on a regular basis.

Setting goals is easy; but setting really good goals, which inspire a positive performance culture, is harder.

The purpose of this paper is to set out the key components of an effective clarity of focus, to highlight the common pitfalls which prevent many goals from having the desired impact on motivation and performance, and to take you through a set of questions to help crystalise your thinking on the goals and performance measures for your team.

Why the quality of our goals matter so much – five ways effective goals can help to create a positive performance culture:

In 2001, Harriet Lamb kick started a decade of staggering growth for Fairtrade in the UK with a simple statement of purpose for the next decade  ‘to make Fairtrade the norm in 3 of the most important products for third world countries– coffee, chocolate and bananas.’ This overarching statement of purpose was underpinned by a clear set of goals and measures which targeted 50% market share for each of these products, and a very clear strategy which focused initially on getting the products in front of consumers in supermarkets, and then on creating demand through education in schools. The sale of Fairtrade products in the UK increased from £30m in her first year, to 1.3 billion a decade later in 2011.

If effective, a team’s statement of goals has the potential to support the creation of a performance culture in 5 important ways:

  • Motivation - they should inspire people, by connecting the work they do to an important and motivating purpose. Answering the question of ‘why’ our work matters.
  • Teamwork - they should unite and align people in the team (or partnership) behind a common purpose which people will begin to take collective ownership if, if everyone is held accountable to these common goals
  • Focus – they should help focus peoples efforts on where they can make the greatest difference
  • Stretch and challenge – yes goals need to be achievable, but not easy. A key purpose of goals is to challenge people to innovate, to reach forward and drive progress. They should create a positive tension between where you are now and where you want to be. This is one of the reasons they need to be specific and measurable – there is a big difference between the goal to ‘improve x’ and ‘to improve x by 30% in the next 12 months.’
  • A benchmark to review progress against – the point at which goals really start to become meaningful is the first time you review your progress against them.

To what extent are your current goals fulfilling these roles – i.e. are they motivating to both you and the team; are they challenging and stretching enough; do they focus people’s attention; are they a useful catalyst for helping you as a team to think about if you are making progress and what’s working?

So what are the key components of an effective clarity of focus?

  1. The overarching outcomes you are trying to make a difference to

    Set the context with the bigger picture outcomes we are trying to make a difference to, either in terms of quality of life outcomes (for public facing services) or organisational effectiveness outcomes (for support functions).

    E.g., for a team involved in education, they may set out (with relevant partners) a vision to make Norfolk one of the best places in the UK (or even the world) to get an education. As a group of partners you would look to agree on a set of indicators of progress towards this goal. E.g. The number of schools rated as excellent might be one of these indicators. As might average grades at different Key Stages. As might achievement levels for children with special needs etc
  2. A clear articulation of how we as a team can best contribute to these ambitions

    Setting out the key areas of activity you as a team are going to focus on, to maximise your impact.

    E.g. (continuing with the above example) The Norfolk 2 Good & Great team might define their focus within this overall vision as ‘Challenging and supporting Heads in schools to be the best they can be.
  3. Measures of performance for each of the above areas of activity, you will use to evaluate the quality and impact of your work.

    How will you measure the extent to which people are better off?

    E.g. They might measure the % of schools who’s heads they have worked with, who achieve an excellent rating at the next opportunity?
    The only issue with these measures of whether people are better off, is that you sometimes have to wait a while to evaluate this kind of impact. So it is worth thinking about how you can best evaluate the quality of your work more immediately, such as user feedback on a programme. But, it is critical that that as soon as is possible, the work is held accountable to the more important question ‘to what extent are people better off’.
  4. Targets or goals around these measures in terms of what you would like to be different in 12 months time (for example).

    Targets around key measures of performance can be useful for providing a constructive level of challenge and drive for progress, but the greater goal should always be about how quickly we can ‘turn the curve’ from a base line of what would be the case if we did nothing.  

    E.g. If you set out an ambitious goal to improve performance by 30%, and you end up achieving 25%, in most instances that would be a great story of progress and should be cause for celebration - not failure.
  5. Clear areas of responsibility and goals for each individual, focusing them on where they can best add value to the above goals.
  6. Regular review discussions to maintain focus on the goals and drive learning around ‘what works’ – both as a team (engendering collective responsibility) and with individuals

Criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of your clarity of focus

Having each of the above components in place is, by itself, not enough; the real question is how effectively these components of helping to creating a clear and positive performance culture around what we’re trying to achieve.

Read through and rate your current ‘clarity of focus’ as a service (on a scale of 1-5, 5 being high) against the following criteria:


Are people clear
on the outcomes and measures we are trying to make a difference to?

i.e To what extent is our work focused by a clear long term purpose and set of goals; giving everyone a crystal clear focus for what we are trying to achieve?


Do we have clear ways of measuring the quality of our work & whether anyone is better off; and do we have the data we need to track our progress against these measures?

  • Can we articulate ‘the curve we are trying to turn’ (e.g. number of schools rated as excellent)
  • Do we have a clear ‘base line’ showing past, current and projected performance (if we did nothing)?
  • Do w;e communicate this data – i.e. does everyone know how well we are performing at any point in time?


Do we have specific goals/targets around the impact we want to have on these measures within a given timescale?


Do our stated outcomes and goals energise and motivate people within the service?

To what extent do people buy into and are motivated by what we’re trying to achieve?

NB: This is about a number of things, including whether:

  • People see the connection between what we are trying to do and a wider outcome they buy into
  • Striking the right level of challenge in the goals – creating a positive tension between where we are, and where we want to be
  • People’s belief in the team/organisation’s ability to achieve it


Is there a clear agreed strategy within the team around how best to maximise our impact on these outcomes?

i.e. How clear are people on what we need to focus our energies on in order to maximise our impact? NB: This may evolve over time as we learn more through reviews about what works

Linked to this, are we clear on the potential partners who can help us achieve our outcomes?


Individual clarity of role – how effective are we at translating our level clarity of focus into clear goals for each individual?

i.e. Does each sub team, and ultimately each individual, have clarity around their role in what the wider team/service is trying to achieve, and how they can best add value?

Do they have a meaningful way of evaluating the difference they’re making?


Do our goals and measures act as a catalyst for teamwork and collaborative behaviour within the service, and (where relevant) across partnerships?

To what extent is there a feeling (within the service) of all being a part of a united team, with a common set of goals and priorities we are all working towards


Team reviews to drive learning - do we as a team (or teams) have frequent high quality review/learning conversations around the progress you’re making, what’s working and what’s not?

Common pitfalls to avoid:

  • Setting out factually correct but boring ‘mission statement’ type goals that don’t inspire any energy.

    In our work with NCC managers on the Excellence in Management Programme, we have noticed a lot of people are good at articulating what the team does, but not so good at ‘answering the why’ behind this – i.e. why the work they do matters, and what difference it makes.

    E.g. The Bridges team in highways may be correct to say their focus as a team is ‘fixing bridges’, but that does not really help to inspire high performance. What if they tell a bit more of the story behind this focus – e.g. Our overarching purpose as the highways team is to make the quality of the roads in the County a defining strength of the area and our economy. And our role as a team within this is to ensure we maintain the bridges to prevent closures for major repairs. At present x% of our bridges are below where they need to be from a maintenance point of view, and our immediate focus for the next 2 years is to fix this. The challenge is, we need to do this with less resources than we’ve historically had.
  • Focusing on goals which are a ‘means to an end’, as apposed to the end outcome itself

    E.g. Goals around integration, improved collaboration, restructuring or even engagement are often valid goals which should contribute to performance, but we need to remember they are not the end goal itself.

    If we have goals around Integration (between health and social care for example), we need to evaluate the impact of this work against quality of life measures for end users and perhaps  financial savings goals (both valid end outcomes); making progress on integration by itself doesn’t guarantee we are making a difference to these end outcomes.
  • Lack of a specific and measurable target or goal to create a positive tension around the area of focus the goal is concerned with.

    Too many goals talk about aiming to ‘improve’ an area of performance without specifying by how much specifically, within a given timescale. To share a good example of this from a education charity based in Harlem US, compare these two purpose statements.

    Their original statement of purpose:

    ‘To improve the lives of poor children in America’s most devastated communities.’

    This is well meaning, but pretty vague and not particularly realistic for a team of 7 people based in Harlem.

    Their revised statement of purpose…

    3,000 children, aged 0 to 18, living in our immediate community, should have the achievement profiles of an average middle class community

    … kick started one of the most successful education projects ever seen, transforming local children’s achievement in a little over 3 years.

Some questions to help crystalise our thinking around what our goals should be

  • What are the quality of life conditions (for front facing services) or organisational effectiveness outcomes (for support functions) we are trying to make a difference to?
  • What would success look like for each of these outcomes?
  • Who are the key partners we need to work with to help bring these outcomes about?
  • How can we best contribute to these outcomes? What are our specific goals around the difference we want to make?
  • How can we measure our effectiveness and impact in these efforts? How will we evaluate the quality of our work in the short term, and how can we ultimately evaluate the extent to which anyone is better off?

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