Goal-setting – the SMARTest thing? (Part 3)

imageIn our previous posts on goal-setting, we’ve challenged conventional wisdom and been generally sceptical about the benefits of goals and the evidence in their favour. By ‘goals’ we don’t mean the checkpoints that tend to occur naturally along the way to doing virtually anything, but rather the ‘aiming points’ we set – or more often than not, are set for us – as incentives.

All goals fall to us as individuals – even corporate ones are meant to ‘cascade’ – but as best-selling author Dan Pink (among others) observed, human motivation is really far too complex to be driven effectively by mere carrots and sticks. In this, our third and final (for the time being) look at goals, we consider a few more subtle approaches based primarily on understanding how motivation really works.

Perhaps the first thing to recognise with traditional methods of motivation is that despite its poor record as a reliable driver of behaviour, guilt often forms the active ingredient of carrot and stick approaches, most notably where ‘carrot’ equates essentially to ‘not stick’.

imageIn fact, our response to any long-term task is largely shaped by how distantly we view the finish line and how optimistic we are of reaching it. Take, for example, the ambition many of us have of writing a book. People who actually go on to become authors are not necessarily those with the best writing skills, nor even the greatest desire, but those best equipped to overcome Doubt and Delay – the twin enemies of progress.

Instead of focusing on the mountain, they have the ability to fast-forward and just know that they’ll get to the summit.

Self-awareness is another useful tool to have in the box. As individuals, we have varying abilities to apply ourselves: where some people seem blessed with prodigious powers of concentration, still others soon tire. The key is for us to accept our realities. Rather than beat ourselves up about them, far better to acknowledge our limitations and look for ways to work constructively around or through them.

Then again, it may be simply a matter of organisation. People often become less productive the more they have to do, due in no small part to their growing uncertainty about what they should do next. Salespeople can be particularly prone: should I make that call, send that email, respond to that RFI ..? There may be no right answer so even as they’re doing one thing, they worry they should be doing something else. It drags down productivity.

Ultimately, getting things done is less about giving ourselves superficial hoops to jump through – no matter how SMART – and far more about understanding the task at hand and the resources at our disposal. Certainly, when all else is said and done these are two aspects of management that, at Thesis, we never forget or neglect.

Goal-setting – the SMARTest thing? (Part 2)

Last time we took a brief look at the evidence in favour of goal-setting and generally found it rather unconvincing. In this, the second of three posts about goals, we consider some of their drawbacks…

imagePerhaps the most obvious issue with goals, whether corporate or individual, is that they’re generally as long as a piece of string – arbitrary. We come up with (SMART) goals and make them our be all and end all, but then to treat them as such over an extended period still largely requires an act of faith.

In true Micawber fashion, reaching our goals may result in happiness and missing them in misery, yet in reality the world continues to turn regardless.

According to a much-quoted saying, if you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know when you get there. But as Covey and others have pointed out, knowing where you want to go doesn’t necessarily say much about the best way to get there. Becoming overly focused on a distant prize may, however, be one sure way to trip over the rock right in front of you. Plus it restricts your ability to spot other, even better prizes along the way.image

In our view, the main issue with goals as motivators is that they’re really a very blunt tool that take no account of how we respond to them as individuals. As such, they speak only to the symptoms of procrastination rather than to their cause.

In Part 3 of this commentary, we’ll consider other, more effective approaches to motivation building – so make it your goal to watch out for that!

Goal-setting Рthe SMARTest thing? (Part 1) 

Goals are great aren’t they? They guide us along our chosen path, enable us to keep a check on progress, even help us get back on track if we wobble off it.

imageSince 1968, when psychologist Edwin A. Locke gave goals a modern day makeover, goal-setting has consistently ranked amongst the most favoured and widely used of all management tools. Now goal-setting in general and SMART in particular (everyone’s favourite acronym – it first emerged in the early ’80s) are all over the internet.

But are goals really all they’re cracked up to be? Do they actually work or do they just sound good in theory whilst delivering little in practice other than a guilt trip? How effective are they really at helping us get results?

For years, the most cited research in favour of goals was the famed 1953 Harvard goal study, which found that graduating MBAs with written goals went on to massively outperform their goalless peers. However, for the same reason that not all legless mammals are dolphins, its conclusions were based on false logic. Worse, it was also a myth: it never actually happened.

Now note that this is not about planning, forecasts and the like, all of which are undeniably vital. Rather, what we’re talking about here are goals, aka targets, aka quotas – numbers used to focus us, to spur us on to greater things, above all to motivate us. If we were all programmable robots, frankly they wouldn’t be needed, but then the evidence that they are is far from conclusive in any case.

imageNo less a guru than Stephen Covey once said ‘Stop setting goals. Goals are pure fantasy unless you have a specific plan to achieve them.’ In other words, without a plan, goals are bad news. The thing is that even with a plan they can be counterproductive.

In Part 2 of this expos√© we consider further why goals often turn out to be own-goals in practice. So play it SMART and stay tuned for that…