goals, fail, help, Toby Elwin, blog

How goals help us fail

goals. fail, strategy, Boston Globe, Toby Elwin, blog

Aim high, shoot low. Or was it shoot high, aim low?

March 15th I read an article in Boston’s Sunday Globe Ideas section on how goals have a dangerous side. The article called Why Setting Goals Can Backfire jumped-started my thoughts on goals. The past two weeks I have spent time thinking and scribbling notes all over this article. I thought I’d share some. [the .pdf file is here]

In both my personal life and professional life, setting goals seemed a piece of time-honored advice for success. Goals allow me to align my effort to a larger strategy; measure progress and accomplishment; and allow for course correction along the away.

Setting goals was a great way for me and my clients to communicate a concrete picture of the future-state, inform stakeholders of a tangible effort, and align an organization towards achievement.

However, Drake Bennett, the article’s author reports that goals create unintended consequences to constrict thinking and blind organizations to their own best interest … scholars are now looking deeper into the effects of goals, and … companies like GM show ample ability to hurt themselves … [goals] can lead to crazy behaviors to get people to achieve them

This article is so rich, I would really take up too much time paraphrasing it. However I thought to share some nuggets:

  • Goals … might actually be taking the place of independent thinking and personal initiative
  • When people fall just short of their goals people lie to make up the difference
  • Narrow corporate goals can keep people from asking questions
  • Stretch goals are most likely to be pursued by desperate, embattled companies – the sort least equipped to deal with the costs of ambitious failures
  • Most concentrate so hard on the goal they become blind to other information
  • Goals with rewards … can short-circuit our intrinsic enthusiasm for a task – or even interrupt our learning process
  • Simple numeric goals can lead to bursts of intense effort in the short-term, they can also subvert longer-term interests of a person or a company
  • Reducing complex activities to a bundle of numbers can end up rewarding the wrong behavior

While reading the article I began to deconstruct how I approach goals. Once a strategic goal is developed, the leadership needs to understand how each part of the organization enables the goal.

Each team, department, or division enables or detracts from the effort of the larger goal? Then comes a complete strategic cascade and subsequent roll up of how every department, organization, team, and project will achieve their goal and, in turn, how their goal enables the larger, strategic goal. I want to link all goals with objectives and actions and make sure objectives are time-bound and measurable.

Change is constant. A blind obedience to goals will miss an opportunity to reevaluate their relevance in a constant climate of change.

One way to mitigate following a goal towards trouble is to establish a timely (quarterly?) governance council that would meet and review the goals along with any of the following:

  • the original conditions the goals were set,
  • what has changed since,
  • measure progress against all the goals the organization aligns to,
  • communicate upwards risks, mitigated or discovered, and
  • adjust goals – as needed

I advocate organizations communicate the goal, cascade the effort vertically and horizontally, link effort to enabled goals, and modify goals as needed.

Goals are not the issue, but blind obedience to a goal; a lack of organization understanding of how goal relates to operations; and the rigid adherence to the goal’s success is the environment for failure.

The goal of a goal is a goal. Goals should not be an edict cast in cement.

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