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Setting Goals: A Good idea?

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canstock3887692Our society has prescribed ‘setting goals’ to be one of the basic building blocks of success and achievement.  As we embark on a new year, I have been thinking about the value of this building block.

Let us begin with what do we mean by a ‘goal’. Oxford dictionary defines goal as ‘the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result/ the destination of a journey/literary a point marking the end of a race’. Good goals are recommended to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely).

How does ‘setting goals’ help? The obvious answer is that goals define a direction for our movement and actions.  Additionally, once we can visualize the destination of our journey, we are incented to act to achieve those desirable results.  Goals can also assist in creating a structure around our actions and aid us in warning us when we deviate from our action plans. In organizational settings, they are a tool to align disparate actions and efforts.

I buy into these benefits. But the question I have been lately asking is – what is the opportunity cost of following this approach? What are we losing, if anything, by gaining these above benefits?

My first discomfort with ‘setting goals’ approach is that by making goals as a starting point of our mental model, we implicitly assign more value to a well-defined future state relative to our present state.  By putting the focus on a future state ahead of my current state, I somehow tell myself that my current state/situation is not good enough and I need to get to my ‘goal’ state to be satisfied or happy.  By this logic, I will never be satisfied because once I get to that future state of having met my goal, I will rejoice in it for a little while and then set another goal and implicitly declare that state to be not ‘good enough’.  One could say…but isn’t that healthy?  Doesn’t that approach drive progress?  Never being satisfied enough.  That, my friends, is an interesting question.

Let’s see if we can work with an alternate mental model.  Let us say that as a human, I define myself as somebody who has an intrinsic purpose and passion or a belief in something.  To this, I add my confidence in my capability to create. I then embark on a process that is fueled with my energy and talent and add value in some way, shape or form. In this fuzzy approach, the ingredients of the journey are my intrinsic motivation and my belief along with my inherent confidence in what I am capable of. In this model, I am completely at ease with the present state and am not emotionally vested in a far away state in the future.  The journey itself is the primary focus and incentive, not the goal.  I would argue that if we use this mental model, the progress will be many times over as each one of us explores our intrinsic motivations to the best of our capabilities.  This will enable us to experiment extensively and the setbacks from ‘failures’ will be minimal as we are not emotionally vested in well-defined goals.

Another discomfort I have with having focus on goals is that this approach can increase the danger of narrowing the vision.  When we are focused, our peripheral vision is constrained and we miss the interesting events/pieces of information on the sidelines that could enhance our creativity. Setting specific goals may limit our options to what we can envision, define and articulate here and now.  This stops us from entering a whole realm of potentially enriching possibilities that we have not yet been exposed to. Steve Jobs captured this sentiment in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

So what am I saying? I am arguing for increasing our focus on discovering our intrinsic motivations, passions and beliefs, or in other words, in defining our purpose.  If this is complemented with thoughtful identification, recognition and alignment of talents and capabilities, I suggest that we could be so much more effective as well as efficient in creating results that serve our purpose and are beyond our current ability of definition and articulation.

I think this alternate approach is applicable not just in our personal lives but is also valid for corporate and organizational entities.  Just through basic Google research on the topic, I discovered that there are studies that have asked the same question.  A 2009 study titled ‘Goals Gone Wild: The Systemic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting’ asserts that ‘goals often do more harm than good.’  This study suggests that goal setting in the corporate world can lead to ‘unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture and reduced intrinsic motivation.’  In another study by a pair of researchers at Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago (my alma mater) and the Korea Business School, it was shown that staying focused on our goals detracts from the inherent pleasures of the activities we need to pursue to achieve those goals. A reduction in the inherent pleasures from the activities reduces perseverance and undermines the pursuit of goals.

I fully understand that we are not yet ready to throw away ‘goal setting’ approach for multitude of reasons.  Some reasons may be valid in selective circumstances but I suspect that, in general, goal setting might be inhibiting us from living a flourishing life or participating in a high-growth creative organizational environment.  In my opinion, an approach of ‘planning and following a path towards a well-defined goal’ vs. ‘I believe in a purpose and I am capable and competent to explore possibilities and see where it takes me’ is what separates a run-of-the mill performance from excellence.

Are we sacrificing ‘excellence’ at the altar of  ‘Success is defined by meeting our goals’…I wonder!

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4 thoughts on “Setting Goals: A Good idea?

  1. Hi Kusum. You articulate this thoughtful perspective so well. Thank you for sharing this. I will pass it along to others who could benefit from your perspective.

    I believe that some people feel more sure that they are living their purpose when they have well-established (or even not-so-well established) goals, while other people draw energy and maintain authenticity by simply enjoying the journey.

    One of my client organizations is asking that “purpose in life” question that you mention. I agree that this is brilliant!

    • Thanks Colleen. Yes, I agree that different individuals will have different biases (crisply defined or fuzzy approach) and that is what I hope to explore by bringing the topic to the table. The only word of caution I might add is that the starting point should be intrinsic motivation which, in turn, should define the goals. Otherwise we can get lost in the goals that are defined by external markers of success and lose ourselves in the process. Once the intrinsic motivation is clear (a Herculean task for most of us), then the natural strengths and talents are amplified many times over(as you know way more than I do). Thanks for passing my thoughts around.

  2. Amy, thanks for the comment. Re the applicability of the article’s premise in an organizational environment, I admit I do not have an answer for sure. But I was happy and surprised to see that these questions are being asked in a structured and scientific way in the business world (as shown by the study I cited in the article). My belief is that we inherited the ‘goal setting’ model from the assembly line/manufacturing world of yester years. In today’s knowledge economy, human creativity will be the competitive edge and organizations will look at alternate models to manage their complexity AND creativity. No wonder Bay area companies are experimenting with offering their employees x% of their work time to be used on a project of their own liking. I recently heard where a well-reputed multi-national organization is asking its senior-most employees about their purpose in life and how it relates to their professional roles. This is real and is music to my ears. I truly believe that our society is getting too attached to ‘achievements and goals’ and in the race we are losing track of our inner motivations (beyond dollars and status). I also believe that human capability is at its best when the true inner motivation is married with natural strengths and talents (not just specific skills). Maybe I am living in a Utopian world, but I see good signs around me.

  3. Hi Kusum, thank you for this very thought provoking article. As someone who has lived their life goal setting, this concept is a bit foreign to me. However, now I am at a time in my life where my goals are very long term and I find myself really enjoying the path. It is a slower paced path by it’s nature and perhaps not focusing on short term goals has enabled me to explore different branches of the path along the way. I think I am more able to focus on intrinsic motivation as a result. It has been liberating. However, I wonder at the ability of an organization to be truly productive and move forward without set goals in place. It would be an interesting experiment. Thank you again for sharing this piece. Amy

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