Exploding goals and their myths


Goal-directed language guides much of our social policy, investment and quests for innovation without much thought of what that means in practice. Looking at the way ideas start and where they carry us might offer us reasons to pause when fashioning goals and whether we need them at all. 

In a previous article, I discussed the problems with goals for many of the problems being dealt with by organizations and networks alike. (Thanks to the many readers who offered comments and kudos and also alerted me that subscribers received the wrong version minus part of the second paragraph!). At aim was the use of SMART goal-setting and how it made many presumptions that are rarely held as true.

This is a follow-up to that to discuss how a focus on the energy directed toward a goal and how it can be integrated more tightly with how we organize our actions at the outset might offer a better option than addressing the goals themselves.

Change: a matter of energy (and matter)

goal |ɡōlnoun:  the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result • the destination of a journey

A goal is a call to direct effort (energy) toward an object (real or imagined). Without energy and action, the goal is merely a wish. Thus, if we are to understand goals in the world we need to have some concept of what happens between the formation of the goal (the idea, the problem to solve, the source of desire), the intention to pursue such a goal, and what happens on the journey toward that goal. That journey may involve a specific plan or it may mean simply following something (a hunch, a ‘sign’ — which could be purposeful, data-driven or happenstance, or some external force) along a pathway.

SMART goals and most of the goal-setting literature takes the assumption that a plan is a critical success factor in accomplishing a goal.

If you follow SMART, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound (or Timely) this plan needs to have these qualities attached to them. This approach makes sense when your outcome is clear and the pathway to achieving the goal is also reasonably clear such as smoking cessation, drug or alcohol use reduction, weight loss and exercise. It’s the reason why so much of the behaviour change literature includes goals: because most of it involves studies of these kinds of problems. These are problems with a clear, measurable outcome (even if that has some variation to it). You smoke cigarettes or you don’t. You weigh X kilograms at this time point and Y kilograms at that point.

These outcomes (goals) are the areas where the energy is directed and there is ample evidence to support means to get to the goal, the energy (actions) used to reach the goal, and the moment the goal is achieved. (Of course, there are things like relapse, temporary setbacks, non-linear changes, but researchers don’t particularly like to deal with this as it complicates things, something clinicians know too well).

Science, particularly social science, has a well-noted publication bias toward studies that show something significant happened — i.e., seeing change. Scientists know this and thus consciously and unconsciously pick problems, models, methods and analytical frameworks that better allow them to show that something happened (or clearly didn’t), with confidence. Thus, we have entire fields of knowledge like behaviour change that are heavily biased by models, methods and approaches designed for the kind of problems that make for good, publishable research. That’s nice for certain problems, but it doesn’t help us address the many ones that don’t fit into this way of seeing the world.

Another problem is much less on the energy, but on the matter. We look at specific, tangible outcomes (weight, presence of cigarettes, etc..) and little on the energy directed outward. Further, these perspectives assume a largely linear journey. What if we don’t know where we’re going? Or we don’t know what, specifically, it will take to get to our destination (see my previous article for some questions on this).

Beyond carrots & sticks

The other area where there is evidence to support goals is from management and study of its/ executives or ‘leaders’ (ie. those who are labelled leaders and might be because of title or role, but whether they actually inspire real, productive followership is another matter). These leaders call out a directive and their employees respond. If employees don’t respond, they might be fired or re-assigned — two outcomes that are not particularly attractive to most workers. On the surface it seems like a remarkably effective way of getting people motivated to do something or reach a goal and for some problems it works well. However, those type of problem sets are small and specific.

Yet, as much of the research on organizational behaviour has shown (PDF), the ‘carrot and stick’ approach to motivation is highly limited and ineffective in producing long-term change and certainly organizational commitment. Fostering self-determination, or creating beauty in work settings — something not done by force, but by co-development — are ways to nurture employee happiness, commitment and engagement overall.

A 2009 study, appropriately titled ‘Goals Gone Wild’ (PDF), looked at the systemic side-effects of goal-setting in organizations and found: “specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.” The authors go on to say in the paper — right in the abstract itself!: “Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.”

Remember the last time you were in a meeting when a senior leader (or anyone) ensured that there was sufficient time, care and attention paid to considering the harmful side-effects of goals before unleashing them? Me neither.

How about the ‘careful dosing’ or ‘close supervision’ of activities once goal-directed behaviour was put forth? That doesn’t happen much, because process-focused evaluation and the related ongoing sense-making is something that requires changes in the way we organize ourselves and our work. And as a recent HBR article points out: organizations like to use the excuse that organizational change is hard as a reason not to make the changes necessary.

Praxis: dropping dualisms

The absolute dualism of goal + action is as false as the idea of theory + practice, thought + activity. There are areas like those mentioned above where that conception might be useful, yet these are selective and restrictive and can keep us focused on a narrow band of problems and activity. Climate change, healthy workplaces, building cultures of innovation, and creating livable cities and towns are not problem sets that have a single answer, a straightforward path, specific goals or boundless arrays of evidence guiding how to address them with high confidence. They do require a lot of energy, pivoting, adapting, sense-making and collaboration. They are also design problems: they are about making the world we want and reacting the world we have at the same time.

If we’re to better serve our organizations and their greater purpose, leaders, managers, and evaluators would be wise to focus on the energy that is being used, by whom, when, how and to what effect at more close intervals to understand the dynamics of change, not just the outcomes of it. This approach is one oriented toward praxis, an orientation that sees knowledge, wisdom, learning, strategy and action as combined processes that ought not be separated. We learn from what we do and that informs what we do next and what we learn further. It’s also about focusing on the process of design — that creation of the world we live in.

If we position ourselves as praxis-oriented individuals or organizations, evaluation is part of regular attending to the systems we design to support goals or outcomes through data and sensemaking. Strategy is linked to this evaluation and the outcomes that emerge from it all is what comes from our energy. Design is how we put it all together. This means dropping our dualisms and focusing more on integrating ourselves, our aspirations and our activities together toward achieving something that might be far greater than any goal we can devise.

Image credit: Author



One Comment on “Exploding goals and their myths

  1. Pingback: Reframing change | Censemaking

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