Category Archives: Goal setting

goal-setting articles

Transform your Career by shifting: Shift 7 From Goals, Roles And Routines To Meaning, Mattering, And Black Swans

Shiftwork is the work we have to do to manage, thrive and survive in a world where shift happens.  I’ve identified 11 shifts that we have to make (see here), so far I’ve addressed the first six, and in this post, I address the seventh shift.  The earlier ones you can read by following these links:

  • first shift Prediction To Prediction And Pattern Making (see here)
  • second shift From Plans To Plans And Planning (see here)
  • third one From Narrowing Down To Being Focused On Openness (here)
  • fourth shift From Control To Controlled Flexibility (see here)
  • fifth shift  From Risk As Failure To Risk As Endeavour (see here)
  • sixth shift From Probabilities To Probable Possibilities (see here)

We live in a world that is complex, changing and therefore inherently uncertain. These fundamental features of our world apply to everything from cellular reproduction to operating the windscreen wipers on a car.   It is how we respond to the challenges that complexity, change and uncertainty pose that influences or determines how successfully and happily we live in this world.

Ironically, one of the most common responses to complexity, change and uncertainty is to act to reduce or eliminate them, or if we cannot do that, to pretend they do not exist.   We can cope with the idea that one factor causes or influences another thing – like heat turning bread into toast, and we are especially happy when the relationship is controllable – the longer in the toaster, the browner the toast.  However when there are nine different options to operate the windscreen wipers it is all too much.  I know someone who has just sold their car for a cheaper and simpler one for this reason!  If only the world and the people in it obeyed simple rules, life could be conquered, neatly bundled up and put in a box.

To be fair, this approach has been spectacularly successful in many regards.  Sit under an apple tree long enough and you will appreciate Newton’s insights about gravity and apples. Lots of things in the physical world do appear at the human scale to behave in predictable and lawful ways over reasonably long periods of time.  Stonehenge is still standing, Warwick Castle remains, the Pyramids are still around.

However, when it comes to humans and human interactions, simple models of behavior have proved to be less successful, humans and their interactions have proved to be less predictable, less controllable.  There are simply too many different influences coming to bear at any one time with a tendency to change from one moment to the next.

This has not stopped us from trying to account for behavior in the relatively simple terms of personality, star sign, gender, sexuality, head shape, body shape, political views, family history, birth place, birth order, early childhood experience, love of cats or dogs and many more.   In nearly all cases evidence can be found that suggests these factors do play a small part in our behavior. However the emphasis is on the small part they play, and even when combined there is still a very large amount of uncertainty in behavior remaining.

Nonetheless the desire for a predictable live leads us to implementing strategies that are predicated on the world being an unchanging, controllable and predictable place.  The three most common strategies are Goal Setting; Role Setting and Routine Setting.

Goal setting is the most popular behavior change strategy employed by individuals and organizations. It is almost uncritically accepted, a point I and several others have been making for some time (see this article and this one).

In complexity terms, goal setting involves reducing all of the complexity in a situation simply to the actor and the goal – from here to there.   The strength of goal setting is that it demands that we focus upon a clearly defined target, and very often it further demands that we move toward that target within a specific time frame.

As I’ve pointed out before (along with others) goal setting works well in psychology labs and in the short-term. Over longer periods (typically more than 3 – 6 months) the potential for things changing in our environments, or us changing is so great that the goal posts shift or are obliterated.

In situations where there is a lot of ambiguity and change, there is a danger that goal setting will lock us in too early to an objective that is ultimately undesirable.  Goals work best in simple situations in the short-term.  Goals can be useful, but to rely on them overly or exclusively runs the risk of missing opportunities that change brings, or becoming rigid, stereotyped and irrelevant in a complex changing situation.

Another way of simplifying the world is to think of ourselves and others as occupying roles.  We do this to ourselves when we think in terms of “worker”, “homemaker”, “parent”, “lover”, “child” etc.   Like goals these can be useful ways of making sense, but ultimately they are limited and too rigid to capture the complexity of a changing world.  The simplistic messages first adumbrated about work-life balance highlight the limitations of dividing the world into these categories.  The reality is messier, the boundaries are blurred.  In organizations in the past, the extensive application of roles in the workplace led to demarcation disputes, inflexibility and a lack of competitiveness.   Organizations with rigid structures have typically not fared well in the 21st century business environment.  Similarly those with an overly rigid sense of self, reinforced by a role label also struggle.

The third strategy is to impose routines as way of increasing predictability and reducing complexity.  Everyone knows where they are with a set of rules.  Funnily in sport, the most artificial of rule-governed environments, where doing the best within the rules is the whole raison d’etre, the rules often change from one season to the next. For instance check this site to see how the rules changed in baseball. Changes are made as players adapt and exploit loopholes or even as was the case in 1975, a shortage of horses meant they needed to find another type of hide to cover the balls!

The point is that there is always an exception to the rule.  Things change unpredictably requiring the rules or routines to change.  Rules and routines are always a response to complexity, they never lead or tame it.  Further because things are complex, the rules or routines will never be able to fully capture or anticipate that complexity.

We all have experienced the exasperation of dealing with “more than my job’s worth” little pedants – or their voice activated counter-parts, or sometimes whole bureaucracies that just cant or wont respond to your particular circumstances.   Rules, regulations, policies and the like are an essential part of life that provide a degree of certainty and consistency of expectation in human interaction, but like Goals and Roles, when applied rigidly, without finesse and wisdom, they can become rigid, inefficient, and sometimes damaging or even inhumane.

Shift 7 is about recognising the value and importance of these strategies, but seeks to add other approaches to life that transcend these attempts at trying to control and predict everything.   The move to Meaning, Mattering and Black Swans underlines the fundamental importance of these things to the human condition.

Doing things that have personal or community meaning is an important but neglected consideration in our work and organizations.  Instead of jumping straight to the goal setting tool bag to solve our problems, time spent reflecting on what is the most meaningful thing that I or we could do, may provide a bigger guiding framework into which shorter-term goals or roles or routines begin to make sense.  Having this sense of meaningful work also provides a home for wisdom – the wisdom to recognize when goals are not appropriate or should be changed or abandoned.

Mattering is a related concept to meaning and it relates to doing work that matters to us and to others.  It means doing work that resonates with our sense of calling, purpose or vision, and work that has a tangible and important positive effect on others or society.  It is about social connection and doing something useful and worthwhile. It is work as social contribution.   Again mattering is superordinate concept to Goals, Roles and Routines.   It guides us as to their use and application.

Ironically Meaning and Mattering are the things that provide the motive force to maintain Goals, Roles and Routines.  It is when we start to question whether what we are doing is meaningless or feel that is does not matter to us or to others that we begin to waiver, before getting stuck.  Often a failure to think sufficiently and frequently about Meaning and Mattering risks us following Goals, Roles and Routines on autopilot, and in so doing we do not take into account the shifting sands of our lives and the result is we run aground and get stuck fast.   As Norm Amundson points out many people (and organizations) report feeling “stuck” when they hit a crisis point.

Finally, the Black Swans refers to the term I think was termed by Nassim Taleb in his eponymous book from 2007.  He makes the point that Europeans assumed that all swans were white until a black one was discovered in Western Australia.  The point is that in many situations (more than we tend to appreciate) it only takes one thing of which we were previously unaware to change everything.  Black Swans are a reminder that what we dont know we dont know has the greatest potential to impact our lives and they are things that we cannot predict with goals, or simplify into Roles or Routines.

The presence of Black Swans in our lives (that Taleb credits for every event of signifcance in human history!) is a potent reminder of the severe limitations on our ability to predict, control, goal-set, role-set or routinize our lives.  It is a reminder that if we want to be successful in our lives, we need to do what is meaningful, what matters and to be excited and content to live with the uncertainty of Black Swans.

 

Coaching and Leading for the short-term and authenticity

Coaching and Leading for the short-term and authenticity

The short term gets a bad press.  A short-term measure is frequently seen as superficial, a temporary band aid solution that fails to address the deeper underlying problem. This perspective fails to recognise the fact that the short term regularly turns out to be long term. The things that we do now can and often do have a major influence on things down the track (in the longer term).

You cannot get to the longer term without going through lots of short terms, it simply isn’t possible. However frequently Leaders are criticised for not taking a long-term view, coaches and counselors are enjoined to take a longer term perspective.  However anyone demanding a long-term view should be made to spell out how that view articulates in the short term.

I think people are reluctant to spell out the short-term implications of a long-term view, because they feel compelled to produce a “complete” solution.  Often an honest and legitimate short term implication is that little will appear to have changed.

Short term is not synonymous with simple. However it is often necessary to simplify in any one short term action, simply because we are human and there are limits to what we can think and do simultaneously.  However doing lots of simple things reasonably contemporarily can add up to complexity.  Lots of short term actions can address complexity.

The corollary of this is that short-term strategies do not have to be over-simplified and rigid.  This is how short-term actions get a bad name. In our preoccupation to be seen to be doing something tangible, we can miscontrue a situation in overly simple terms which in turn begets an overly narrow, simplistic set of actions that may give the appearance of addressing a problem, but in fact is not doing so particularly effectively.

Imagine someone pitching the idea of aging.  The long term view is that our hair will go grey or just go and our skin will become wrinkled (Joan Rivers excepted).  But what about now? What is the short term effect of aging.  The true answer is that tomorrow you’ll pretty much the same as today, notwithstanding any major life events or traumas. And the day after, and the day after that.  If you’re lucky and the year after that.

The key to embracing BOTH the short term and the long term is to recognise that in a complex and changing world, it is not always possible to get  clear line of sight between the short term and the long term.  It may not be clear why events happening now have any meaningful connection with outcomes then. This insight means we cannot control and predict, we cannot know all, we are indeed vulnerable as Brene Brown points out here and in this knowledge we can be authentic leaders, coaches or counsellors.

Being aware and comfortable in discussing that the short term may not offer a complete solution to the puzzle, and indeed that in reality, neither does the longer term, rather what we are trying to do is intentionally and intelligently explore the mystery, is an important step toward authenticity.

Once you have a stated (long term aim, purpose or calling) you can be liberated into attempting lots of short term experiments.  The danger lies in attempting to apply planning techniques that work well in a short term situation like goal setting that demands a specific result by a specific time.  Imposing such specificity on longer term outcomes has the tendency to stymie short term innovation and experimentation, because it is always being held to account against a rigid set of criteria.

Short term actions may not only fail to appear to be moving things along, it may even appear to be going in the wrong direction.  Within the Chaos Theory of Careers, the long term is an emergent pattern (or state) that results from many many repeated short-term events.

Taking action in the short term without a sense of purpose, intention or calling may result in good longer term outcomes, but it relies a lot on chance.  Following an intentional, purposeful path may not result in a desired or even desirable outcome (there are no guarantees in life) but it does at least mean you are more likely to be prepared to follow hunches, hear calling, try things out and take action in the first place.

Placing demands on yourself and on others to articulate tangible and specific outcomes in the short-term or the long-term may result in such a jaundiced view of the short term, that you don’t bother even trying.  It is a failure to appreciate that trying and striving now can and does lead to places then.  The short term is the birthplace of action, but dont waste your time anxiously looking for results.  For some things, and dare I say, the most important things, the outcome or result emerges over time, and in some cases, those patterns may not be evident within our lifetimes.  That fact should not deter us from trying and trying now.

see also this post on calling and re-souling your career

 

 

Transform your Career by shifting: Shift 3 From Narrowing Down To Being Focused On Openness

Shiftwork is the work we all have to do to manage, survive and thrive in the face of a world where Shift Happens.

I’ve identified 11 shifts that we have to make (see here) and the first shift (see here) and second shift (see here) below I give a few tips about how to achieve the third one.

Shift 3: From Narrowing Down To Being Focused On Openness

When trying to make a decision it is easy to become overwhelmed by the choices and so it makes sense to narrow down those choices to a couple of alternatives or even better to one option.  This strategy is useful when:

  • making the wrong choice doesn’t matter much
  • when the situation is simple and you can think through all the implications of your various options
  • when all the alternatives are obvious and easy to understand in advance
  • when things are not not changing or not changing rapidly and can be predicted accurately
  • when you can reverse the decision and start over with the same alternatives still available to you

However many decisions, and many career-related decisions are not like this.  Often things are changing and changing unpredictably.  There are many complex factors bearing on the decision, and because of this uncertainty, changeability and unpredictability, it may not be possible to “undo” a decision.  Under these circumstances being too focused on one course or action of goal may mean failing to spot a better one along the way. Bright & Pryor (2007, Career Planning & Adult Development Journal) call this Luck Readiness (a term coined by my friend from Life Strategies Roberta Neault), or opportunity awareness.

Ways in which you can focus on openness include:

  • engaging in possibility thinking
  • entertaining “wildest dreams”
  • reading lots
  • reading material and attending meetings addressing topics outside of what you think of as your area
  • go to a gallery
  • go to a museum
  • see a music gig
  • talk to friends
  • talk to enemies
  • listen without talking
  • look for 10 reasons why someone else has got a point
  • see other ideas as gifts not threats
  • hold opinions but never be sure
  • be oppositional with your own ideas and open with others ideas
  • change your viewing/reading/learning/cultural habits
  • using the “I’m feeling lucky” link on google
  • read blogs
  • follow links on twitter
  • accept invitations
  • make invitations
  • vary your social life
  • sit in a different chair

  • rearrange your office
  • talk a walk in the woods/high street/mall/in your mind
  • travel
  • look at a scene, turn away, look again and see something different. Repeat 10 times
  • when things go wrong dont curse, instead say how curious I wonder why?
  • never conclude
  • appreciate quitting is often success – like smoking, drugs, reckless driving, make quitting work for you
  • network by giving and sharing yourself, your ideas and tips
  • if you must set goals set fuzzy ones
  • see yourself as lucky
  • experiment with everything
  • take things apart
  • be curious, especially about what you take for granted

Transform your Career by shifting: Shift 2 From Plans To Plans And Planning

Shiftwork is the work we all have to do to manage, survive and thrive in the face of a world where Shift Happens.

I’ve identified 11 shifts that we have to make (see here) and the first shift (see here) below I give a few tips about how to achieve the second one.

Shift 2: From Plans To Plans And Planning

We all like to make plans. They make us feel comfortable, they give and sense of direction and underline a sense of purpose.  However in a rapidly changing world that is so interconnected that decisions and actions taken by people we’ve never met in a country we’ve never visited can turn our own plans on their head, we need to be continually planning, not relying on a plan.  Add to that the forces of globalisation, technological advances, plus social changes and you have recipe for undermining our plans.

Having just one plan can lead to inflexibility and it may leave you stalled when conditions make your plan obsolete.  Military General and President Dwight Eisenhower said “In battle plans are useless but planning is indispensable”.  In other words learning how to do planning is just as important or more important than the plan itself.

Here are some suggestions to improve your planning skills:

  • engage in scenario planning – think of lots of different possible outcomes, no matter how improbable and work out what you’d do in those situations
  • Consider for each scenario what would need to happen for me to: quit the plan; stick with the plan; revise the plan
  • listen to  and be aware of small “insignificant signs” what might they be telling you?
  • look at your current plan on a daily basis – is there a better one out there? how can I change it/refine it/finesse it/fine tune it?
  • think about what you know you know; what you know you dont know; what you dont know you know and most importantly what you dont know you dont know
  • identify emergency resources that you have (skills; attitudes; support; finances)
  • make a liferaft plan and mentally equip it with survival items (where I can go for support or shelter – e.g. my family; my friends; my boss; my lawyer etc)
  • be open to new information/opportunities/ possibilities
  • go beyond probability thinking (considering what will probably happen) and always consider possibility thinking
  • devote part of each day to developing new plans
  • resist getting into SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities threats) thinking while developing plans – let the plans develop fully before doing this
  • adopt a wait and see policy to see what emerges
  • ask yourself what else am I missing here
  • step into the shoes of your fiercest critic – what would they say about your plans – try your hardest to make their arguments
  • consider that other people can have a point
  • follow WC Fields dictum – “if at first you dont succeed, try again and then give up, there’s no point being a damn fool about it”
  • develop mini plans for the very short term that have little realistic downside and put them into action
  • regularly test the boundaries and extremes of your plans – where does it lead you
  • implement several plans at once, even if they are contradictory or paradoxical and monitor them

  • consider the value of small steps and reducing the timelines for your plans
  • consider moving from SMART goals (Specific Measureable Attainable Realistic and Time-based) to fuzzy goals – non specific, not necessarily measurable, not necessarily attainable and not necessarily realistic)
  • get connected and listen to feedback (note listen not necessarily automatically acting on it)

What are your tips for developing planning skills as opposed to have a plan?

Oppositional Thoughts…Volume 4

Here is Volume 4 of my Oppositional Thoughts…They are designed to gently puncture some of the slightly precious life advice out there, and to complexify overly simplistic homilies, that make life appear a lot simpler than it is in reality.

You can find Volume 3 here and Volume 2 here and Volume 1 here

Oppositional thoughts…There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you..never read Dan Brown obviously….

Oppositional thoughts…if you enrol in a stunt academy do they put you on a decelerated learning program?

Oppositional thoughts…Life has no limitations, except the ones you make…so if I jumped off a building I could fly if I tried hard?

Oppositional thoughts…Letting go of your dreams results in mediocrity….not if you had the dreams I’ve been having….

Oppositional thoughts… Why do I feel like I need a stiff drink after hearing a “sobering account”?

Oppositional Thoughts.Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.sorry, what was that again?

Oppositional thoughts…Let go and it will be yours forever…I let one go and it’s true, it hung around forever…

Oppositional thoughts…Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter…unless they are the police or a judge….

Oppositional thoughts…”Arrogance, immaturity & lack of experience are unattractive at work”..so presumably save all that for your friends

Oppositional thoughts…procrastination explained…later, perhaps tomorrow

Oppositional thoughts…I don’t have a career story, actually it is just a sentence. I got life….

Oppositional thoughts… Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools. -Napoleon Bonaparte” ..before lose & Waterloo

Oppositional thoughts…flash mobs are all very entertaining, but I wish they would stop flash flooding

Oppositional thoughts..I was sitting in my underpants when I opened the job offer letter. I was so excited, they asked me to get off the bus

Oppositional thoughts…I saw this man with the worst wig ever, I was so helpless with laughter, that the panel terminated my interview

Oppositional thoughts…you know when a job interview is going badly when they tell you to put them back on….

Oppositional thoughts…when I read that reality is perception I could not believe my eyes

Oppositional thoughts…I was busy completing an online job application, when my supervisor interrupted to continue my 1st day induction…

Oppositional thoughts..I was doing a stress imagery exercise at work with my eyes shut. It failed when my fare grabbed the steering wheel

Oppositional thoughts…@davidawinter #question yourself..why does he want me to question myself, can’t he be bothered asking me questions?

Oppositional thoughts… After six hours of questioning myself I reluctantly had to let myself go due to a lack of evidence or witnesses

Oppositional thoughts… what if I did it all because the lady loves milk tray, and then I discover it was all a Twix?

Oppositional thoughts…after my marathon effort all I heard was snickers and wispas. It mars my efforts to Hershey said I was fruit and nut

Oppositional thoughts…only a fool tries to climb the corporate ladder.  Smarter folks take the stairs, and the smartest take the elevator

Oppositional thoughts…employee engagement is just intention, but employee marriage is commitment. Is your employer prepared to do it?

Oppositional Thoughts…In life you are either a passenger or a pilot, it’s your choice…but on a plane, one of those is called hijacking

Oppositional Thoughts…the harder it is to get into a school the better it is…Mine must have been brilliant, I needed a Judge to send me.

Oppositional thoughts…authenticity is essential for professional speakers and that goes double for the ghost writers of their books…

Oppositional thoughts…There are no mistakes in life, just lessons…but what if your life has been one long playtime (trans: recess)?

Oppositional thoughts…be thankful for what you have…but I have deeply ingrained ingratitude, should I be grateful for that?

Oppositional thoughts…Life is 2 short 4 U 2 B pulled down by negative, jealous, cynical people…so how long would be about right?

Oppositional thoughts…live badly today, for tomorrow it will become your past and make the present seem better than what went before…

Oppositional thoughts…there’s always a way if you are committed…Well first I got myself committed, but there was no way out after that

Oppositional thoughts…to succeed at work try something new each day, and if that fails you can always try actually working

Oppositional thoughts…I tried it out, but was told by a policeman to put it away or risk getting arrested…

Oppositonal thoughts… It is never a good idea to have your work spread over many fields lest people confuse it for manure….

Oppositional thoughts…I have been described as the superglue of our team..not to be trusted near lavatory seats and always the sticking PT

Oppositional thoughts…getting into medicine: careers seminar. . ? It is simple to get into medicine, just push down and twist the cap

Oppositional thoughts…I worked hard to get my team engaged, but now I am, having second thoughts about marrying them? Big of me or bigamy?

Oppositional thoughts..Work on what you love and it won’t feel like work.. I used my life partner as my desk, but the pens kept rolling off

Oppositional thoughts…Just because there is a screen between us doesn’t mean you, or I, are less human.. just that one of is incarcerated.

Oppositional thoughts…”If we don’t start, it’s certain we can’t finish.” Not True. I didn’t start and the boss said I was finished!

Oppositional thoughts..if you believe you can do it, the odds go way up..True.  I believe I can fly: odds of me being an idiot went way up

Oppositional thoughts…do you remember how unique you once were?…true everyone was unique once except me…..

Oppositional Thoughts…be nice to the people you meet on the way to the top…if you are not serious about getting to the top that is.

Oppositional Thoughts…SWOT – Silly Way Of Trying…to convince everyone that the future is less complex and more ordered than it really is

Oppositional thoughts…to be a good singer you need to be able to hold a note, but the only ones I held were to ransom….

Oppositional Thoughts…I finally found myself, but when I found out what I was doing, I wish I hadn’t bothered.

Oppositional Thoughts…I thought I’d found myself, but I was unable to pick myself out at the identity parade

Oppositional thoughts…Identity Parade…is that like a Mardi Gras parade for people with multiple personalities?

Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting

Recently Harvard academics  Lisa D. Ordonez,  Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman wrote a piece in the Academy of Management Journal highlighting a range of serious problems with the overuse and uncritical use of goal setting (link here). They essentially argue that goal setting often comes with a series of side effects that are rarely considered that can have significant negative effects for individuals and organizations.  Some of their arguments echo ones I have made about the overuse and abuse of goal setting as a panacea for all career development problems for instance see this piece and this one.

The authors pose these questions (and suggestions for addressing issues) that we should ask before jumping into goal setting.

1. Are the goals too specific? – Narrow goals can blind people to important aspect of a problem.

Suggestion: Be sure that goals are comprehensive and include all of the critical components for firm success (e.g., quantity and quality).

2. Are the goals too challenging? What will happen if goals are not met? How will individual employees and outcomes be evaluated? Will failure harm motivation and self-efficacy?

Suggestion: Provide skills and training to enable employees to reach goals. Avoid harsh punishment for failure to reach a goal.

3.  Who sets the goals? People will become more committed to goals they help to set. At the same time, people may be tempted to set easy-to-reach goals.

Suggestion: Allow transparency in the goal-setting process and involve more than one person or unit.

4.  Is the time horizon appropriate? Short-term goals may harm long-term performance.

Suggestion: Be sure that short-term efforts to reach a goal do not harm investment in long-term outcomes.

5.  How might goals influence risk taking? Unmet goals may induce risk taking.

Suggestion: Be sure to articulate acceptable levels of risk.

6. How might goals motivate unethical behavior? Goals narrow focus. Employees with goals are less likely to recognize ethical issues, and more likely to rationalize their unethical behavior.

Suggestion: Multiple safeguards may be necessary to ensure ethical behavior while attaining goals (e.g., leaders as exemplars of ethical behavior, making the costs of cheating far greater than the benefit, strong oversight).

7.  Can goals be idiosyncratically tailored for individual abilities and circumstances while preserving fairness? Individual differences may make standardized goals inappropriate, yet unequal goals may be unfair.

Suggestion: If possible, strive to set goals that use common standards and account for individual variation.

8.  How will goals influence organizational culture? Individual goals may harm cooperation and corrode organizational culture.

Suggestion: If cooperation is essential, consider setting team-based rather than individual goals.Think carefully about the values that the specific, challenging goals convey.

9.  Are individuals intrinsically motivated? Goal setting can harm intrinsic motivation. Assess intrinsic motivation and avoid setting goals when intrinsic motivation is high.

10.  What type of goal (performance or learning) is most appropriate given the ultimate objectives of the organization? By focusing on performance goals, employees may fail to search for better strategies and fail to learn.

Suggestion: In complex, changing environments, learning goals may be more effective than performance goals

Goal setting in my mind can encourage people and organisations to focus too narrowly on only a couple of things in their environment, and this runs the risk of them failing to see the bigger picture, and being ill-prepared to deal with change, complexity and innovation in their environments (see this piece).

Goals appear to be most effective in relatively unchanging environments, in the short term and where the problem the goal is addressing is clear and relatively straightforward.  The trouble is that these circumstances do not occur in real life as often as many people assume when they chose to set goals or blindly engage in goal setting.

Another problem is the type of goals that people try to set.  We can distinguish between performance and learning goals. Performance goals are the ones we usually associate with goal-setting, for instance -” I will increase my results on the test by 30% by the end of the quarter“.   A very common version of these are SMART goals – Specific Measurable, Achieveable, Realistic and Time-based.

Learning goals generally refer to increase knowledge skills and abilities in a defined area.  “Increasing understanding of Monty Python sketches”, “mastering the use of the comfy chair”, “remembering your wife’s recipe for lemon ice cream” are all examples of learning goals.

Changing circumstances mean that SMART performance goals can become less tenable, or even impossible. Furthermore the desirability of attaining such goals can become questionable as the scene changes over time.  If your company’s goal was to sell twice of much of the drug “Bowel-shatterer-Pro” over the next 12 months, this goal might become inappropriate if during that time clinical trials demonstrated the drug to be a danger to the health of those taking it.

Learning goals are less susceptible to change in this way, and thus are more likely to be a useful strategy in a changing environment, or even over the longer term.  However outside of specific learning environments like schools, colleges and Universities, the use of learning goals is less common.

To my mind both forms of goal setting – Performance and Learning – still suffer from inducing a form of selective blindness – to focus on one or two things at the expense of all else.  It is not at all clear there is any evidence that people in real life (ie not in psychology laboratories) really can or do behave like this – unless they are the rare few that has a coterie of minders and managers surrounding them to shut out distractions and hold back change, most of us have to deal with change and complexity on a daily basis.   Think about how we spontaneously look to support students completing High School exams as parents, or coaches supporting elite athletes – we eliminate distractions like cooking or cleaning for themselves, we might monitor social distractions, etc. In other words we try to recreate laboratory conditions to some extent.

So where does this leave goal-setting? Well I think we need to get realistic about what goals can and cannot do.   There is little doubt that in the short-term, with relatively unchanging circumstances and with relatively straightforward problems goals can under some circumstances be useful – the evidence points to this.  However as figure 1 shows, as problems get more complex and situations become more changeable, goal-setting as a strategy becomes much more questionable.

Figure 1 – Goal setting strategy for short-term situations

Now consider the use of goals in the medium to longer term (i.e. any time horizon beyond a few months or more).  The situation here is quite different.  Even in relatively unchanging environments, the amount of time involved inevitably introduces some change making goals less effective, and sometimes it can also make the problem more complex.  Here we need what I call “Fuzzy Goals” – goals that are more Situational, Multifaceted, Adaptable, Risk-Taking and Transformational – David Winter’s alternative to the restrictive traditional SMART goal (see his article on this here).

As things get more complex and changeable, goal-setting as a strategy becomes even more questionable and we may be better off thinking in broader, more creative and flexible terms that permit more openness, and more of a wait, see, learn, adapt, respond, try kind of methodology, something akin to my Beyond Personal Mastery® model of creativity (see here for more details)

Figure 2.  Goal Setting strategy for medium and long term situations

Conclusions

What I think is instructive looking at Figures 1 and 2, is how traditional SMART goals may only be really effective in one of the situations out of the 8 presented.  This may provide a clue to the problems of goal-setting – most problems are more complex, most situations are more changeable, and most people want to employ goal setting over too longer a time frame.  This is why in the Chaos Theory of Careers, Goal setting is seen as a form of simplifying complexity and often oversimplifying complexity.  See here for an extended treatment of this point

It is time we recognised the valuable contribution that goal setting can make, but at the same time appreciate that they may work best in a very limited and prescribed context and as Lisa Ordonez, Maurice Schweitzer and colleagues point out, they be accompanied by a lot of unanticipated and undesirable consequences.

I’ve been reading Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting by Lisa D. Ordonez,  Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman .

Reference:

Lisa Ordonez, Maurice Schweitzer, Adam Galinsky, Max Bazerman, Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal-SettingAcademy of Management Perspectives Februry 2009 (PDF here).

Your goal? What do you want? appiness! I beg your pardon!

I have in the past highlighted some of the research casting doubt on the effectiveness of goal setting as a motivational technique. There is another aspect to the goal setting story that is worth reflecting on, and that is the relationship between goal setting and happiness. Indeed this was the topic of a recent paper by Michael Wiederman in Scientific American, entitled Why it’s so hard to be happy.

When you set a career goal you are highlighting that there is something about your current circumstances that you want to change, and that you will be happier when you achieve your goal of changing your circumstances. Such thinking means accepting two premises: firstly, my current circumstances are not making me happy (if they were why change?), and secondly, that when I achieve my goal I will be happier. The trouble with this is, apart from trivial goals, this means that I have told myself that I will not be happy until the goal is achieved. So I have just set up a state of unhappiness that will last until the goal is achieved.

In broader terms what we are doing is getting caught up in relational thinking. That is the tendency to compare what we have right now with what others have. Very often it is what we perceive others to have that we adopt as our goals. We want to look like a film-star, we want to live in a house just like the big one on the top of the hill or by the water. We want to be as rich as the film star who lives in the house by the water…. Research suggests that such thinking is not motivational, but rather encourages us to focus on our current perceived shortcomings. Such thinking can destroy relationships. I have seen people unhappy because they saw a failure to a get an increase in share value as a huge loss. In fact they had lost nothing, but it was the perception of failing to achieve a financial goal, that caused poisonous recrimination between marriage partners. The people concerned were probably in the top 10% earning category, but they lived in a very wealthy area, so in relation to their neighbours they felt poor.

There is also the issue that goal-setting can distort or impair performance. Haste makes waste is an old adage, but how often do people make mistakes when under the pressure of meeting some goal? There is plenty of evidence around that goals can create anxiety which can impair performance. Just think about sports performance, where the longer term goal of winning the match can interfere with the immediate goal of hitting the ball accurately. For instance, Oliver Freedman in Australia and Richard Masters in the UK showed that you can impair golf putting performance by providing financial incentives.

Secondly, goals distort performance by focussing the individual’s performance on those goals with the result that other tasks might be neglected. In the short term this may not matter or even be desirable, but in the longer term, this may lead to undesirable and unexpected outcomes.

Now let’s think about the process of goal achievement. Most goals are met by incremental steps towards the desired state, such as saving money or dieting to a desired weight. As we get closer to our desired state, the gains can seem smaller and smaller (if we’ve lost 9kgs, then the extra 1kg to meet the goal of 10kg doesn’t seem such a big deal). In other words as we close in on our goals, we are continually in a process of adaptation and consequently we have already discounted the gains we have made. This can mean that when the goal is achieved it is accompanied by a sense of anti-climax. Tim Rice, the lyricist who wrote Evita, remarked that sometimes achieving our goals is worse than not achieving them. He was referring to that sense of anti-climax that often accompanies goal-achievement – that the goals do not deliver the level of happiness we expected.

Maybe it is time to introduce the concept of fuzzy goals, which are looser and bigger statements of a desired general direction. They are the opposite of the goal setters mantra of Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based (SMART) goals. Such statements are not specific, not easily measurable, perhaps more aspirational than achievable, they may not even seem that realistic at times, and they are certainly not time-based. They give us wriggle room, room to be human and to appreciate where we are and what we have right now. Such statements give us a chance to avoid Joni Mitchell’s warning that “you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone”. Maybe such fuzzy goals are called purpose.

So setting a goal means accepting we are not happy at the moment, and we will stay unhappy until we achieve the goal, but when we achieve our goal, we will get a sense of anti-climax because we’ve already discounted our changed circumstances! So what do we do? We set yet more goals, and before we know it, we are goal addicted and condemned to thinking that happiness is some elusive future state. Not a recipe for success or happiness.

Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU National and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy.