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How To Use The Cascading Goals Model For Organizational Alignment And Success

Goals are the roadmap for a company's success. 

But, all too often, goals aren't properly aligned with day-to-day action and decision-making.

This often leads to missed opportunities and subpar performance.

If your organization's goals are often missed, it’s time to take a closer look at how they’re being set, communicated, and implemented.

A few simple changes can make all the difference in achieving success.

Developing a cascading goal-setting program will reinforce desired actions in alignment with organizational strategy.

Additionally, regular communication and check-ins ensure everyone is on the same page and actively working toward achieving collective outcomes.

This way, HR and leaders can use goal setting to create a more cohesive and productive workplace.

I’ve been deeply immersed in the organizational development process and some might call me a bit obsessed with goals and the goal-setting process.

The model described in this article encompasses years of experimentation across goal-achievement models.

It presents a way to connect goals and align efforts from the top to the bottom of your organization while increasing employee engagement and motivation.  

The Cascading Goals Model

“The goal is to ensure everyone is going in the same direction, with clear priorities, in a constant rhythm.” - Felipe Castro of Lean Performance

In my early career, I worked in organizations that used the Management by Objectives (MBO) process and set goals annually. 

Under this framework, by the time we were ready to evaluate goals, so much time had passed that we had completely shifted focus. The goals that were set were not followed up on and were no longer worth doing. 

In other organizations, I experienced the OKR model where employees are encouraged to set unattainable “stretch” goals to motivate employees to achieve more. 

The OKR model, especially when tied to compensation, can be confusing, demotivating, and is often the source of manager/employee conflict or awkwardness. 

Thankfully, things change.

I am lucky to have experienced leaders who inspired teams to develop a better, aligned, and cascading goals model. 

Acknowledging that the MBO process wasn’t working and OKRs weren’t right for us, a cross-functional team was tasked with creating a new goals program.

That experience completely changed the way I think about goals and how I lead teams in delivering value to the organization.

This is the model I will share with you today!

Cascading goals provides a different perspective on goal setting in an organization. It’s a top-down approach that starts with a high-level theme for the year, key organization-wide goals, goals for leaders, then teams, and, finally, individual employee goals. 

This model of goals being aligned organization-wide allows individuals and teams to be both aligned and autonomous in delivering desired outcomes. 

Everyone is given clarity and responsibility. With this comes motivation, and the chances of hitting goals significantly increase.

I’ll now take you through how to implement a cascading goals model in your organization.

How to implement cascading goals in your organization

1. Setting The Cadence

“Goals transform a random walk into a chase.”Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The days of setting annual goals for individuals are gone.

In my experience, organizations move at a pace that makes individual annual goals obsolete almost immediately after they have been set. 

Conditions change, markets emerge, roles shift, and products evolve. In fact, companies that set performance goals quarterly can generate 31% more returns than those reassessing annually.

If your organization runs fast and you want to achieve more, stop setting annual goals for individuals. Instead, set quarterly goals and evaluate their relevance, necessity, and progress weekly or bi-weekly. 

Keep your eye on the ball and be sure you haven’t switched courts. 

In my teams, we set goals at the beginning of each quarter and evaluate their relevance, necessity, and progress weekly or bi-weekly. 

We have tolerance for changing priorities at the beginning of the quarter, but also make sure we’re doing what we said we were going to do. It's a fine balance. Commit and go!

Here’s a typical goal-setting schedule for my group, repeated quarterly: 

  1. 3 weeks before the quarter begins: evaluate key projects, priorities, and organizational goals. During this time, the highest-level leaders also publish their goals with full transparency. The entire organization reviews and considers them as a core component of their team and individual goal planning. 
  2. 1-2 weeks before the quarter begins: align with cross-functional teams on group projects. If you need something from another team to achieve a larger goal, get on their agenda—be sure they are setting goals in alignment with organization-wide projects. 
  3. The week the quarter begins: meet as a team to align on purpose, and priorities and set your own goals. Confirm goals with other departments and get all goals on paper (or documented in a tool). 
  4. Weekly or bi-weekly, over the course of the quarter: write a quick progress update on all goals. Evaluate goals to be sure priorities are reflected accurately. Communicate between teams on goal progress and be sure any dependencies are considered when scheduling key activities. 
  5. Throughout the quarter: execute, execute, execute! Document progress throughout and communicate constantly. 
  6. Last 3 weeks of the quarter: repeat step 1 to prepare for the next quarter.
  7. End of the quarter: Celebrate successes! Meet as a team to report on what was achieved and talk through what will be most important to achieve in the next quarter.

Setting quarterly goals and monitoring progress weekly or bi-weekly gets your teams moving forward with focus.

The more you practice this cadence of goal setting, the more lightweight it will feel and the more effective it will be.

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2. Get Clarity

“Clarity affords focus – Thomas Leonard, personal coaching pioneer

The first real step in goal setting is to get clarity on what’s most important right now, and why. Without clarity, we have no idea where we’re going.

Top-level leaders: it is your job to provide clarity to your teams on what is most important to your organization. If you’re not providing clarity on where you’re going, how can you expect people to want to join you on your journey?

What does clarity look like? 

Clarity in an organization includes building and socializing answers to these key elements:

In an organization with clarity, its mission, vision, and values are defined and evolve with the business. The strategic plan is shared widely, and people at all levels know how their work contributes to achieving those goals.

A good practice to drive clarity is for the executive level team to create a high-level theme for the year and key organization-wide specific goals you want to achieve to move forward in your strategic plan.

Combined, these elements create clarity that helps guide decision-making and drives goal alignment across the organization. 

Annual Theme Wide Goals Graphic

The annual theme unites the organization and sets the stage for the year ahead. The key organization-wide goals help employees understand what they need to do and clearly measure their collective success along the way. 

With this clarity, goals become aligned at every level. Every team and individual goal set during the year is tied to a key organization-wide goal. Goals cascade from the top level to lower levels. From there, leaders begin setting goals at the highest levels, with leaders of the organization. 

Once you have clarity, continue following this guide to set aligned and cascading goals.

3. Start At The Top

“Goals are like a map. They help us determine where we want to end up, and give us personal direction on which to focus our energy.” — Catherine Pulsifer

The strategic planning process is a critical part of any organization's success. 

However, all too often, organizations fail to achieve their desired results because their goals are not properly aligned with their actions. You can fix this misalignment by starting at the top and cascading goals down to the individual level.

At least 3 weeks before the start of a new quarter, top leaders in an organization should work together to identify key strategic goals and desired outcomes. They should do this not just for themselves, but also for their departments as reflected in the leader’s goal.

Leaders should be accountable for the outcomes delivered by their teams, as reflected in their individual goals. This means that if the team misses the mark, the leader should also miss their goal. These goals should be connected and aligned. Win together, learn together. 

For example, an HR leader might have a goal focused on accelerating hiring and onboarding to meet company growth goals, as measured by the number of hires in a quarter, with a specific numerical target. 

Strategic Planning Process Graphic

While this leader likely won’t schedule and facilitate all of the interviews to meet this goal themselves, they are responsible for the teams that will deliver these outcomes. As such, they should be made accountable for supporting that team’s success in the form of a measurable goal. 

If the team is falling behind, this incentivizes the leader to support the team in achieving their goal as a participant, not just an observer or evaluator of the team’s outcomes. 

Each leader should set 3-5 goals for their department, reflecting what is most important to achieve in their functional areas in the coming quarter. 

Each goal should include what they’re going to achieve, what tasks, programs, or changes might be needed to achieve the goal, and how the goal will be measured.

We’ll talk more deeply about this goal creation formula, later on, so keep reading! 

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4. Be Transparent

"Transparency, honesty, kindness, good stewardship, even humor, work in businesses at all times." - John Gerzema

Once goals are set for leaders at the highest levels, they must then be made visible to the entire organization.

Publishing goals transparently helps everyone in the organization understand what is most important, which leaders and teams are working on what, and gives key insight into interdependencies and collaboration opportunities across teams. 

Tip: Consider publishing goals with a web link to allow updates by leaders. A read-only link to a shared document might suffice, but some more complex sharing methods might include dashboards with filters for annual theme, leader, or other visualizations. 

When my leader publishes her goals, I know what’s most important on her agenda for the upcoming quarter. I can then consider how my teams can contribute to what’s most important to her and what the business has decided are the most important items to drive us forward. 

There are also non-department-specific benefits to publishing goals transparently. I lead a team of project managers who contribute to delivering desired outcomes across the organization, regardless of hierarchy, department, or team. 

When goals are published transparently, project managers can see what is most important to the leaders and departments they work with most closely, and be sure that they have considered the needs of those leaders in their own project and goal planning. 

When goals are published transparently, people get an opportunity to learn what’s most important to their leaders. With that information, they can then be sure their own individual and team goals are aligned with what’s most important while maintaining autonomy to execute, solve problems, and deliver outcomes in a way that best fits their working style. 

5. Determine How You Can Help

“One of the keys to leadership is recognizing that everybody has gifts and talents. A good leader will learn how to harness those gifts toward the same goal.” – Ben Carson, former US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

Once goals have been set by upper-level leaders, managers and individuals can consider their area of responsibility and determine how they can contribute best. 

Leaders or managers of teams should consider the responsibilities of those on their team, the strategic goals defined by their leader, the key organization-wide goals their leader’s goals cascade from, and any additional team goals for the quarter. 

From there, individual goals emerge based on what each team member is uniquely qualified to do and their areas of responsibility. 

A not-so-fun stat; only 16% of frontline workers have a clear understanding of how their work contributes to the strategic goals of the organization. You can do better. 

Aligning team and individual goals with the goals of leaders, and collective strategic goals helps to ensure each employee knows how their work contributes to the strategic goals of the organization.

Each employee knows why their work matters. When employees know why their work is important, they feel valued and motivated. If their goals are tied to compensation, there is transparency in if they will achieve the monetary rewards. Everyone is aligned, and everyone knows what to expect next. 

When I am setting goals with my teams, I hold a workshop to set goals together. 

We meet as a team in the first week of the quarter and re-state and confirm the purpose of our team, review the goals of our higher-level leaders, and identify if there are any other key strategic items our team needs to achieve. 

From there, we develop our team goals. Next, each person confirms their area of responsibility and determines how they can help. This is how goals are defined at the individual level, cascading down from the organization’s key goals. 

Consider the purpose of your team. What is your team responsible for? How can you distill a big goal to smaller, more actionable pieces of work that contribute to achieving the desired outcomes?

Setting an individual cascading goal example:

Let’s take the Talent Acquisition or recruiting example.

If your leader has a goal to attract, hire, and onboard 30 people this quarter, how does your team of recruiters contribute to this goal? If it takes 15 phone screens to find a successful candidate, how many phone screens should each team member target on a weekly basis? 

Individuals will likely execute best with specific goals they can work towards on their own or with a few other people. 

A quarterly goal for a recruiter aligned with the higher-level hiring and onboarding goal might read:

“I am going to hire 10 people in the next quarter. I will achieve this by facilitating interviews and providing a swift and effective candidate experience. This will be measured by connecting with 15 candidates per week in phone screens and ensuring feedback is provided to hiring managers on all candidates within 1-business day.”

This goal example is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. In many ways, it resembles a SMART goal, but it is so much more than that because each goal will be tied to a company's annual theme and the goal of its leader or team. 

SMART goals often stand alone, but these goals are aligned as they cascade from the top levels to the lower levels of the organization. 

We’ll cover more about how to write these goals in the next section! 

Aligned, actionable goals ensure everyone works together to achieve collective goals at the highest level. Goal alignment allows autonomy in execution which drives intrinsic motivation to achieve the goals.  

6. Get it on Paper

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” – Pablo Picasso

If you want to be successful in achieving your goals, you need to write them down. 

Studies show that people who write down their goals are up to 42% more successful in accomplishing them than those who do not write them down. Writing down goals seems so simple, but it is incredibly important and easy! 

There are many different ways to write goals, and each method has its own strengths. I largely appreciate the SMART goals model, but I also try to take them a step further to include a connection to an annual theme. 

In the most successful and aligned organizations, goals cascade from a key organization-wide goal, aligned with the goals of the leader or team, and include a measurable outcome, usually a metric, so it's clear when the goal has been achieved. 

Each written goal can follow this formula: 

Written Goal Formula Graphic

Note: When defining measurables, focus on outcomes, not outputs. 

An HR specialist’s goal might include processing 5 promotions per week—so what? 

Asking “so what?” will help you find the outcome to be measured. Processing promotions is output, the outcome is that employees are promoted with little friction from HR. 

The measurable outcome is that HR is easy to do business with, meaning managers will not seek to circumvent processes, thereby creating more work for everyone (eye-roll). 

Strive for outcomes, not outputs. 

Examples of aligned, actionable goals: 

Aligned And Actionable Goals Graphic

Connecting And Aligning Goals: An Example

Aligning goals to key company goals and a leader’s goals allows alignment throughout the organization and enables autonomy in achieving the goals of the organization. 

Connecting And Aligning Goals Graphic
How a key organization-wide goal can connect to a leader's goals, team goals, and individual goals.

In many cases, goals will be aligned clearly from key business goals through to individual goals. 

But, at times, there may be team or manager goals that don’t directly connect to goals of leaders higher in the hierarchy but are still important to achieve and connect well to an annual theme.

That’s totally OK! 

These goals are still important and are worth documenting and achieving to move the organization forward. 

For more information on different ways to write goals, including some great examples (however, they don’t connect to key organization-wide goals), check out:

7. Make It Happen

“Set realistic goals, keep re-evaluating, and be consistent.” – Venus Williams

Now that we’ve gone through how to define, align and connect goals, it's time to make these goals valuable! 

This goals program works best when implemented organization-wide, but you could get started with one or a few teams to try it out first.

To get started, introduce the goals model to your team and be sure to get support from the highest level of leadership that will be involved in the goals process. 

Leadership support is essential for implementation and supporting the goals process. Without support from key leadership, the goals program risks being considered extracurricular. 

If you gain buy-in from the highest levels of your organization, you might be able to consider tying goals to compensation. Bonuses are often tied to goal attainment, and this goal model lends well to being tied to compensation as it includes measurable outcomes that can be monitored and reported over time. 

When it’s time to get started, introduce the model, get support and lead your teams in committing to goals. Make the goals visible, and work regular goal updates into your standard workflow. 

Goals help push the organization forward and are a great way to identify who is moving forward swiftly and who might need a bit more support in achieving their goals. 

Keep track of goals continuously with weekly or bi-weekly documented updates either in a shared document, spreadsheet, or goals tool. Your existing HRIS might even include functionality to track goals.

There are many great tools available for tracking goals–check them out: 

Bonus: Good Practices In Timing & Cross-Team Considerations

“A goal without a timeline is just a dream.” – Robert Herjavec

As you implement and begin running your goals program, be aware of the cyclical nature of the quarterly goals process. 

It keeps going, quarter after quarter!

The first few quarters might feel a bit clunky, but stay the course! Teams and individuals will become accustomed to the practice and it will certainly get easier and better understood over time. 

In many cases, achieving cross-functional organizational goals requires multiple teams and individuals to complete a portion of the work. In these cases, consider setting specific due dates for goals that have downstream dependencies.

Plan ahead. 

30% of organizations cite failure to coordinate across units as the greatest challenge to executing strategy.

When you are working on organization-wide goals, collaboration and planning with other teams are critical to your collective success. 

Huddle with the teams you work with most closely prior to the start of the quarter so you can get on their agenda before they set and lock in their goals.

I collaborate consistently with a few teams, and we have set a recurring meeting before the start of each quarter to get aligned and on each other’s agenda.

It genuinely works! 

Let’s get started!

“A year from now you may wish you had started today.” – Karen Lamb

As you get started with this goals program, consider change management techniques to demystify the intent of the change, helping people understand the why. 

Next, model the goal-setting yourself. Start with an annual theme, key top-level goals for the organization, and goals for the highest-level leaders. 

From there, teams and managers can talk through their areas of responsibility in contributing to the higher-level goals and form actionable, aligned goals for their teams and individual employees. 

Find a common location to document, share, and track goals. Plan to make weekly or bi-weekly updates. Celebrate successes when goals are completed and start thinking about what might be most valuable to deliver in the next quarter.

To help you get started, use the below worksheet to help get clarity on your organization’s most important outcomes, key business goals, and leader goals, and then start writing goals for individuals using the goals formula outlined in this article.

putting organizations on the path to success using the cascading goals method featured image

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Have you implemented a goals program in your organization that is aligned and actionable? I want to hear about it! Write to me on LinkedIn, share a comment below or chat with me in the People Managing People Community!

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By Liz Lockhart Lance

Liz is a strategic leader focused on the intersection of people, process and technology. In her day-to-day she works as the Chief of Staff at Performica, an HR Software Company revolutionizing how people give and receive feedback at work. She also teaches an Operations Leadership course in the MBA program at the University of Portland and is working towards completing a Doctorate at the University of Southern California in Organizational Change and Leadership. Liz is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) by HRCI and has 15-years of experience leading people and teams across education, consulting and technology firms.

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