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.
Since 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.
No 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 exposé we consider further why goals often turn out to be own-goals in practice. So play it SMART and stay tuned for that…