New Year, New You: Setting Goals

There’s something about a good goal that really helps focus your behavior over a period of time—both consciously and unconsciously. In fact, studies on behavioral priming, (which is defined as “the incidental activation of knowledge structures … by the current situational context”), indicate that attitudes and other affective reactions can be triggered automatically by the mere presence of relevant objects and events (Bargh, Chen, Burrows, 1996). Set goals for the new year and keep your list handy, allowing the goals to seep into your day-to-day decision making. But on to the main act—how do you set goals anyway?

The GSOT Elements

Goal setting for the research team at Campus Sonar is becoming the norm. We set team goals and individual goals each year, and we’re steadily building a process to check in and track progress on achieving them. 

For those starting out with goal setting, I like using the elements in the GSOT framework as a starting place. It stands for Goal, Strategy, Objective, and Tactics. 


It’s most effective to come prepared with several areas of focus for your team. Whether you’re talking about recruitment, retention, or fundraising, use that topic to focus your discussion.

Let’s dive in.


Goal: Something you want to achieve. It describes a future state and can be very broad or specific.

Strategy: The approach you take to achieve your goal. It describes your plan to achieve your goal and, just as importantly, the ways you determine aren’t how you want to achieve your goal.

Objective: A measurable definition of success with a deadline, including change in volume, financial metrics, retention or turnover, or other metrics.

Tactics: What you do to achieve your goal. Think brass tacks; the activities and tasks that day-to-day support goal achievement.

Applying the GSOT

Sometimes goals are set by your boss or your institution with little input requested from individual contributors. In other cases, goal setting can be a participative process on a team or with your manager. In fact, there’s evidence that indicates participative goal setting leads to greater goal commitment and achievement (Latham, Mitchell, Dossett, 1978). I’ll concentrate on the latter and discuss goal setting as a collaborative process that includes multiple team members—this is the process I’m using with my team.

It’s important to note that while goal is the first term in the acronym, the process of goal setting isn’t always linear. This is especially true when goal setting in a group. 

Option 1: Start with Goals and Strategy

If you tend to be a big-picture thinker or work with those who are, it may feel natural to kick off your goal-setting session by talking about goals and strategy. The Campus Sonar research team recently entertained the following questions when considering 2020 goals. 

A year from now, when you consider one of your areas of achievement, think about:

  • What have we learned or accomplished?
  • Do we operate differently?
  • Are there behaviors we adopt consistently?
  • Are there any performance metrics we have hit?
  • What impact do we have on the company and/or colleagues?
  • What impact do we have on the industry?
  • What impact do we have on our clients?

When you start answering these questions, make sure someone takes notes to ensure answers are captured accurately. You may hit a groove in your conversation, but take the time to ask follow up questions to clarify and understand intent. As your notes grow, it can be helpful to pause and review your notes and identify any patterns or trends. Explore these together and see if there’s a consensus that they’re important or an anomaly.

As you hone in on patterns and discuss opportunities that arise in your conversation, you’ll inevitably start talking about strategy—one of the most challenging aspects of this process to define!

Oh, the Strategery!

I like to talk about strategy as the route you select to get to your destination. As with choosing a driving route, there’s typically no “right” strategy to achieve a particular goal. Think about the factors you consider when selecting your route: how much gas you have left, highway or back roads, ease of stopping along the way for other errands, trip duration, intersection avoidance, etc. 

What you prioritize informs your strategy for driving to your destination.

When you select a strategy to achieve your goal, it’s just as much about what you don’t do, as it is about the interdependencies and business and industry context that surround you successfully achieving that goal. When thinking about strategy and the goals you’re setting, consider the following to focus your discussion.

  • What behaviors, actions, or approaches are not aligned with your approach to accomplishing your goal?
  • How can you achieve it in a way that’s aligned with company and team culture or values?
  • Do you achieve the goal by spending money or time?
  • What is the opportunity cost associated with the strategies you’re considering?
  • Do you choose to achieve the goal based on activities that are beneficial in the long run or short run?
  • Are you selecting a strategy that net benefits one of your stakeholders (e.g., your students, faculty, or campus leaders) or distributes benefit and lessens harm to all stakeholders?
  • How is the approach you select perceived by the rest of the institution? By your industry? By your campus community?

Tying Goals to Strategy

As you’re in the state of flow between goals and strategy, you’ll notice some complementary options between your ideas. At this point, you can begin narrowing the goals you’d like to focus on and write goal statements that clearly describe the outcome and its accompanying strategy. It’s often at this point that I recommend taking a break! Whether for an hour or a few days, step back from the brainstorming work you’ve completed and let it percolate for a while. You’ll often come up with new ideas or ways to clarify initial ideas. I usually take this time to reflect on the conversations I’ve had with my team and draft goal statements for their feedback.

Option 2: Start with Tactics

When working with highly creative and thoughtful teams and you ask what could we accomplish?, there is no shortage of things to do! In this case, it’s okay to dive into tactics and build a wish list of sorts to begin the goal-setting process instead of starting with goals and strategy. At this point, the questions you may want to use to expand the conversation are more activity and task focused for the area of achievement you’re discussing.Clipboard showing play calls to signify tactics

  • What ideas do you have for projects or activities we could do to support this area of achievement?
  • Where do we fall short in this area?
  • If you could change one thing in our culture, process, or approach to our work related to this, what would it be?
  • What is something that is important for us to focus on for this topic?
  • What do you see that’s going really well in this area that we don’t talk about?
  • What ideas do you have to better support this topic?
  • What things do we do really well in this area? Can we do more like this?

Once you have a good list of ideas and answers for these questions related to an area of focus for your team, take a step back. Are there any themes or patterns you notice in those ideas and answers? When reviewed together, a pattern in tactics may illustrate to your team the answer to one of the goal questions a year from now, what have we accomplished and why?

Even if there are no patterns, take the time to dig into each idea and understand intent. Get comfortable with asking why. The Five Whys technique is particularly helpful when used in a safe space: take a tactic and simply ask why five times. Not every answer will be applicable or earth-shattering, but you’ll find some golden nuggets.

Tactical Idea: Create an institutional TikTok account.

Why? It appears to be a cool new platform!

Why [does it seem cool]? Because I’ve seen a handful of our competitors start TikTok accounts.

Why [did they start accounts]? I think they might have started TikTok accounts because prospective and current students are already on the platform.

Why [are prospective and current students on the platform]? Research shows it’s a social media platform that’s quickly growing in use by people under 25.

Why [do they use the platform]? TikTok provides endless similar content on demand by tracking what videos users watch and what they like.

After digging into an idea (like starting a TikTok account), you can better assess whether a tactic fits into a larger institutional strategy and also consider whether the tactic helps you concept a goal.

Goal and Strategy Example: Increase enrollment and retention by using the appropriate digital tools to connect with prospective and current students.

Wrap Up with Objectives

In the event that your objectives are already set for your team, then you’re in a good spot! Whether it’s enroll X number of students or raise $XXX,XXX amount of money, your objective and your goal are defined, and you can determine a deadline and start talking about strategy and tactics.Graphs and ruler indicate objectives

If you’re starting from a clean slate for objectives, consider extenuating circumstances from your organization that might affect your team first. Each objective should have a deadline. When you think about your area of achievement, what might limit the time you have available to work in this area? Knowing your time limitations helps you set realistic objectives for each goal.

Next when considering objectives, have a measurement mechanism in place to monitor progress, or build one. For example, if your goal is to increase student satisfaction with your services, you should have a standard and regular way to collect student feedback in place.

Cheers to Goal Setting!

When I entered the professional world, setting goals and determining strategy was mystifying. And for good reason! It’s hard to do and definitions are tricky to pin down with a quick Google search. For folks on campus and beyond, these tools and questions may serve as a good start to goal setting each year. As this blog is about social listening in higher education, I’ll leave you with one more example of a completed GSOT framework.

Increase [YEAR] yield X% by connecting with prospective and admitted students in an intentional, personal manner both online and offline to inspire connection and action. To support this goal, we’ll leverage social listening research to better understand these audiences and construct messages that are meaningful and resonate, and hold regular meetings with our Admissions team to share recruitment best practices and tips.

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