There is a lot of good and bad advice out there on goal setting, and our own experiences of how and when goals are used might also have left a long-lasting impression. What I’d like to do in this post is take a look at common myths around goal setting and recalibrate what you may or may not know.
#1) SMART goals are the best way to set goals
SMART is simple goal framework that encourages you to create goals that are: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound. On the face of it this all sounds like great advice. But in reality this simple framework has flaws.
Some of the weaknesses of SMART goals:
- The ‘Specific’ and ‘Measurable’ are fine, the issues come in at ‘Attainable’. As odd as it sounds, easy to achieve goals have low to no benefit. The research on goal setting benefits are clear that goals help when they are hard as they increase focus towards relevant activities, prolong effort, and stimulate learning, innovation and collaboration.
- SMART goals are singular. A goal might be to ‘generate 1000 new leads’. But there’s no way of specifying that these leads need to convert to the next stage of the funnel and therefore be of sufficient quality. Goal frameworks like OKRs allow for 1 – 4 measurements to be used together to create a better, more balanced view of goal achievement.
- Smart goals are not linked. By which I mean that there is no guidance on how alignment with other company or team goals should or can happen.
That said, SMART is indeed simple so there are definite benefits in that. But to argue that it’s the best way of setting goals, especially if you’re a company, is a big stretch.
#2) Having systems is better than having goals
In his book ‘How to fail at almost everything and still win big’, Scott Adams of Dilbert fame proposed that goal oriented people exist either in a constant state of failure or they are waiting for a goal, and systems focused people, that just stick to their system, tend to perform better and be happier.
There is no doubt that systems are what drives great organizational performance. How you run departments like finance, engineering, or customer service as examples are system heavy.
I’d argue that how you create better systems is to set goals. You do this by identifying where improvements are necessary, often using KPIs to indicate that current processes and systems are failing. You then move to solve high value problems, or seize high value opportunities via goal setting.
What’s more, there are employees that love goals that stretch them, love unsolved problems, love to innovate, and want to connect their work to a measurable achievement. They are less happy following a process.
#3) I know my goals so there’s no need to write them down
You may indeed know your goals, but does anyone else? And do you know other people’s goals? Having goals in your head or in a silo prevents alignment, avoids accountability and therefore prevents both support, praise, and even reward.
I suspect it’s the pressure of public commitment, and the fear of failure that’s behind this but that’s more to do with company culture and how failure is perceived and managed than anything else. Arguing for having goals that should are undocumented, unshared and un-referencable is plain silly. In fact, research has shown that people who write their goals down are 20% more successful in accomplishing them.
#4) Having lots of goals will help us achieve more
It’s actually the opposite. Lots of goals dilute our focus and the rule of ‘less is more’ is true if achievement is your aim. If you are going to have multiple goals, create a sequence that allows you to focus on one goal at a time, sequentially, not in parallel.
In fact, there’s a necessity to consider all of the goals you could give your time and energy to, and focus on the few things you ‘absolutely’ must achieve and they are your priorities. The rest should go untouched until these are done.
#5) Hard goals are demoralizing
Hard goals are only demoralizing if you see failure as anything other than a learning experience. The reality of hard goals is they are inspiring and provide much need clarity on what we need to achieve.
Some of mankind’s greatest achievements come from setting the bar really high, creating moon-shots. How many experiments that are done everyday work and how many fail. The reality is a lot of the activities we do are untested hypotheses for what we think will achieve a goal. We need to get comfortable with failure and then re-setting and trying again. But not setting the bar high-enough is definitely going to hold you back.
#6) Missing goals makes you a failure
It’s not missing a goal that makes you a failure. Although not doing your best, mistaking hard work for success, or directing your efforts towards goals that don’t matter might be. As basketball coach John Wooden said ‘success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”
This is why getting clarity on just a few high impact goals with measurable outcomes is so important to success. You can then direct your productivity towards what matters most, hopefully doing your best work along the way.
Only you will know if the goals that matter most to you should be shared. But as far as company and team goals go, they should be transparent and be invitations for others to align with, support and encourage you. The days of working in silos are coming to an end. The days of publicly sharing the goals we are working towards in the knowledge that 100% success is not the only positive outcome are becoming the norm.
If openness and transparency appeals to you and it’s not the way you’re working now, you could propose new ways of working like using OKRs and introduce ways of behaving anchored in ideas like Psychological Safety.
#8) Goals help companies get employees to work harder
Goals are not there to make anyone work harder. Goals are there to direct efforts towards the activities that are going to have the greatest impact or most positive outcome. If anything, goals afford us the ability to work smarter, be more considered, or even have a better work-life balance.
Goals are like the rudder of a rowing boat, and your to-do list is your oars. Without a rudder you can be pushed where the wind and tides want to take you.
#9) Only managers should set goals
Managers hopefully know a lot and can play an active part in any goal setting conversation. But the idea that their reports and colleagues can’t add value is obviously a terrible idea. Not only do colleagues have a backlog of experience and new ideas to share, if you want to get buy-in to goals, make teams part of the goal setting conversation, not just the recipients of objectives and targets.
#10) Having goals might hurt my career progression?
When it comes to career progression we’re into the realms of Performance Management and as part of that you need to take into account individual roles and responsibilities, as well as attitudes and behaviors, not just goals and goal achievements, when considering performance at appraisal time.
The best companies build a picture of the individual’s contribution across a number of different assessment criteria. Personal goals being just one, and team goal involvement being even more loosely coupled as teams should succeed and fail together.
What having goals says about you is that you know where you’re going, you’re ambitious, focused, and capable of directing your efforts towards what matters to your team, your company, and your own personal development. Not having goals does not allow you to claim that, or show that your efforts yielded measurable results.
#11) Everything is changing too fast to have goals
Yes the world is moving really fast and we need to be agile. The best companies have long-term plans that are often expressed as Missions and Visions, they also after annual strategies that may be expressed as Strategic Pillars – the ‘battlegrounds’ you must win. From this you can start to create agility, starting with annual company objectives that are often financial, customer / market related, operational or people focused.
Teams can then align their quarterly goals with the company annual goals, and agree to reset goals every quarter, either choosing new goals or continuing goals. Inside every quarter, the day-to-day is happening, projects and tasks are being done that achieve these goals.
These plans are discussed weekly, plans evolved and problems solved along the way. Using these tried and tested planning cadences just works. Ask companies as big as Google and Microsoft, and small disruptive start-ups how they plan and set goals. They will tell you it’s similar to what was described above.
#12) Goals should give immediate results
There is nothing wrong with seeing and grabbing quick wins. In the same way there’s huge gain made from setting a hard goal that means that we need to focus on its achievement for a prolonged period of time. Great achievements are rarely quick wins. So goals can’t always give you immediate results, and there’s a lot to be said for being prepared to delay gratification.
“If you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time.” – Steve Jobs