How do we think about objectives and performance in 2021?

Originally published in the Globe & Mail January 18, 2021

Welcome to 2021, which is feeling a lot like 2020 so far. Many of us were hoping for a magic switch to make things better as the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1. However, while the beginning of COVID-19 vaccination programs provides a glimmer of light, we are still in the tunnel and we need to pace ourselves, proceeding with cautious optimism.

January is, for many organizations, a time for reflection on the previous year’s performance and a call to set objectives for the year ahead. As we continue to experience the trials and tribulations (and resulting uncertainty) of the pandemic, as well as the continuing global social unrest, how can we think about objectives and managing expectations for ourselves and for our organizations for 2021? Five suggestions:

Align to purpose

To keep ourselves and our teams focused on the right things, it is critical to have a well-articulated North Star – so that even if tactics, projects, metrics and measures change over the course of the year, everyone is still rowing in the same direction. Having a well-articulated purpose provides the guidance necessary to motivate colleagues to focus on what matters.

Rethink objective-setting

Personally and professionally, setting long-term (even year-long) objectives when there is so much uncertainty is very challenging. This January, different from last, one thing we know for certain is that this will not be a “normal” year (at least not a full one).

For example, as many of us were cautiously relieved in sending children back to class last September, school closings are now a reality again in many jurisdictions, causing further disruption to any “normal” work flow. Typical business planning cycles may need to be scrapped entirely, in favour of shorter-term, more agile goal-setting.

It is important to set SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based – goals (perhaps with a few tweaks to the traditional meaning, per career coach Michelle Cederberg) to keep colleagues motivated, while taking into consideration all of the uncertainty we are facing. Prioritization is a priority this year, so that there’s a maniacal focus on objectives that most significantly and positively affect the organization’s purpose.

Back to the concept of “tight-loose-tight” (tight on goals, loose on how to get things done, and tight on follow-up and accountability), allowing flexibility for how work gets done, while being clear on goals and accountabilities, provides the agility needed to set and revisit objectives under these ever-changing extenuating circumstances.

Restructure performance management, now

Many organizations still rely on an annual review cycle to drive and evaluate individual and organizational performance. In 2020, when we set goals and started managing performance against them, we did not know what was ahead of us. Therefore, organizations were required to improvise reconciling actual performance within a process and expectation framework that was largely irrelevant.

Some progressive companies decided to abandon traditional performance management processes altogether, in favour of regular check-ins and recalibration. In anticipation of another anomaly of a year, it is important for companies to redefine success, in order to reduce the burden and stress of factors completely outside of colleagues’ control.


Everything from staffing models to inventory and investment decisions should be carefully managed to ensure adequate protection from extreme fluctuations and downside scenarios. For example, staffing models are facing a lot of pressure and uncertainty: The capacity built into teams to handle workflow in a “normal” year may be excessive or insufficient this year.

Think about flexible ways to handle increased (or reduced) volumes so that teams are not scrambling to handle workload when individual circumstances change. Plan for scenarios such as full lockdowns, children at home, unexpected or sudden absences and so on – because these are all highly likely (if not already existing) in 2021.

Leverage technology

Individually and as organizations, there is no time like the present to automate tasks and leverage collaboration tools (including cloud storage and shared drives) wherever possible. This reduces risk when team members are unexpectedly unavailable because of unforeseen circumstances, improves efficiency, and frees up capacity to focus on higher-value activities.

While we proceed with cautious optimism into 2021, we need to constantly reframe and refresh how we work and our definitions of success, in order to combat fatigue and keep ourselves and our colleagues engaged. Challenging one another to “shake things up” (Zoom happy hours are so 2020) both in business and social activities inspires the creativity needed to weather the rest of this storm – however long it will be.

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