With only two weeks left to go before ringing in 2012, I have been thinking a lot about the past year–about the milestones my company set forth back in January and the opportunities that team members need to seize to make 2012 successful.

Goals grab people. Yet few companies nail them succinctly.

Just last week, I lead a focus group at a client business. During the session, I asked a group of front-line employees two specific questions: What’s the No. 1 goal the business had to achieve in 2011? What’s the vision this goal supports?

People really struggled to answer the questions, and this reaction is far from unusual. The thing is – these two questions should trigger an instant and consistent response from any company’s employees. If they can’t, it’s an indicator the company’s goals are too complicated, too obscure, or, worse – unknown.

Every business needs a clear message. Flash back a few decades to Ford Motor Company’s slogan, “Quality is Job 1.” It was a clear goal that readily rallied the troops at all levels.

Advance to 2008, Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz, a leader whom I have tremendous respect for, closed every Starbucks in the U.S. – all 7,100 of them – so the baristas could learn how to make a better cup of coffee. Ultimate focus on one goal: brew better coffee.

As Schultz mapped out in his current best seller, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul: “If the barista only goes through the motions, if he or she does not care and produces an inferior espresso that is too weak or too bitter, then Starbucks has lost the essence of what we set out to do 40 years ago.”

Sometimes, that’s what happens in companies. People lose sight and end up scattered.  And, if you don’t provide your folks with a goal, they’ll usually make some up on their own to fill the void. Those “audible” goals may or may not align with the organization’s.  

How can you get your company—and workforce—in synch? Here are four ways to get started:

No. 1: Pare down to bare bones. Get minimal when it comes to goal setting. Walk away from the idea that more is better. Shred the notion that you need 10 overarching goals and 15 subtenants, and cool graphics that package your strategic roadmap in some pyramid or Lincoln Memorial replica. Strip it down to a goal that fits on one line.

No. 2: Get into people’s heads right now. Bring together your team members—virtually or face-to-face—to talk about goals. Give everyone a sticky note, and ask them to write down on one note what they think the company’s No. 1 goal is for 2012. Next, slap stickies on a wall and take a look at what people had to say. Are people in alignment? Or, are they scattered in response? Use this real-time poll to calibrate your effectiveness, as a manager, to tell the story of your company’s 2012 journey.

No. 3: Nail that 2012 message. Use the sticky-note exercise to calibrate what works and what doesn’t in telling your 2012 business message. Bring team members together and communicate your business plan for the New Year. Then, canvas their feedback real-time. Break out the sticky notes again, and have them rate the message and provide a reason for the rating.  Tweak accordingly—based on their comments—and cement your forward-focused message. This IS your 2012 elevator speech about where the business is headed and what everyone needs to do to support success.

No. 4: Let people work together to form the one goal.  Once you’ve told your story of 2012 priorities—again, recapture the sticky-note exercise. Ask all team members to write down the one overarching goal the team needs to achieve. Again, its likely differences will arise. Seize the moment and ask team members to collaborate and consolidate to one common goal that everyone can contribute to. They’ll be more motivated to contribute if they’ve been able to narrow and define the path forward.

Linda Dulye is internationally recognized for helping many companies go spectator free. A former communications leader for GE and Allied Signal, Linda founded Dulye & Co.  in 1998 with a practical, process-driven approach for improving communications and collaboration through an engaged workforce— a formidable competitive advantage, that she calls a Spectator-Free Workplace™.