How do you connect your long-term business goals with the day-to-day specifics? As a business owner, I try to take a step back to think about where we're going and what we ought to be doing. But actually keeping the big picture in mind while we're there on the front lines is another thing altogether.
That's why I like to implement milestones: Specific measurable goals you can work towards, share with a team and celebrate. They aren't just goals, they're points in a longer journey, which you lay out as if they were stepping-stones. And since they're specific and measurable, there's usually less doubt as to whether you've reached them or not.
Milestones as Markers
Consider how an artist squints to see the features of a landscape, and (metaphorically) squint as you look at where you want your business to go. Look for points along the way, moving in the right direction.
For example, my business is software, and our important milestones were new versions, new platforms and new products. Moving from Windows to a Web app was an important milestone in our long-term strategy. Perhaps a shoe store may choose milestones such as introducing a new line or appearing in web searches as an athletic shoe store instead of a general shoe store. A graphic design business seeking more online graphics instead of print might set markers for adding jobs for social media profile sites, being able to manage images that work with responsive sites on desktop or mobile, or launching social media personas. Each of these examples involves not just achievement but movement in a given business direction.
Sometimes seemingly generic milestones are significant as points on the way. The specific context makes them strategic. Maybe the shoe store passing sales of $100,000 in a single month is only possible with the strategic reconfiguration, or the graphic design firm getting to responsive designs is a matter of moving to a different graphics software platform. These special cases are common, especially when you, the business owner, use them to highlight a long-term direction.
Make Milestones You Can Track
Ideally milestones are easy to share with a team and easy to understand and track. The goal is to have no doubt about what they mean and whether or not you've reached them. Opening business accounts with one or more of the most important distributors of athletic shoes is a specific and measurable milestone. Having designed the social media profile graphics for a first client across three or more social media platforms is also specific and measurable. Getting the account for footwear for the local college track team is specific and measurable.
Consider testing milestones by asking how you'll know if it's achieved. The vague generalities common in mission statements—such as "great design" or "being the best athletic shoe store in Peoria"—are not milestones. They tend to be hard to measure, and not specific. When something vague is really important to your business, consider finding a placeholder to use as a surrogate. In our software business, we put numbers to "great customer service" by dividing calls by total users, watching the average minutes per call and measuring the updates users need for a download. A shoe store might aim for "being the best" by measuring its position on customer review sites. The online graphic design firm might track engagements in social media or leads from social media.
How This Makes Your Business Better
What I've seen repeatedly in years of running my own business is that the larger goals need the concrete milestones to become real and manageable. People may work better when they are working for near-term achievable goals than when they are aiming for big broad goals. I've also seen that people like being able to measure their progress and achievement objectively, independent of a boss or supervisor opinion.
When milestones are met, celebrate. Make it fun. Shave your head (I did in fact shave my beard off only once in the last 30 years, when my team hit an important milestone) or dye your hair green. Throw a party or invite the team to a special event. People who share the worry when things aren't right deserve to celebrate a win.
And the celebration can also kick off the next milestone.
This article was originally published on February 19, 2015.