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Should I Bother Setting Goals This Year?

“I need the article within the next hour”.

The call was from my PR advisor Valerie. She’d asked me to prepare an article for a paper and the goal-posts had just shifted.  The journalist was going on holidays the following week and he wanted it ahead of time. He wanted it today. He wanted it in an hour!

My mind got laser focused because of the pressure and what would normally have taken me much longer got done in 45 minutes. That’s the value of a goal. It brings urgency, it focuses the mind which increases performance. But is it the only way?

The prompt for writing this article was reading another blog, by a very interesting guy Peter Bregman. In a nutshell, Peter suggests not setting goals for the year ahead and instead setting focus areas. It’s an interesting contrarian viewpoint and certainly worth considering.

He quotes the Harvard Business School working paper, Goals Gone Wild, where the researchers viewed a number of research studies related to goals and concluded that the upside of goal setting has been exaggerated and the downside, the “systematic harm caused by goal setting,” has been disregarded. Some of which included a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behaviour, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organisational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.

As someone who has a lot of experience in working with people in this area i.e. helping them achieve personal, professional and business goals, I thought what’s my real view here?

The alternative approach suggested is to identify focus areas for the year and that just by doing this you will enjoy it more, be more present and ultimately achieve more.

That approach has some merit but it’s not enough in my experience.

Having stepped back to really think about it, the ideal approach in my view is a blend of the two i.e. Have priority focus areas and identify clear goals to be achieved within those areas.

The examples given in Peter’s article are interesting and they show the downside of setting some goals. But to me these are examples of poorly thought out goals set without considering the impact on the whole picture.

What’s vital when it comes to goal or priority setting is one thing that’s usually ignored – the quality of the thinking that goes into it. And this is the area where I see most people making mistakes. And with a world that is getting busier and busier, I see less and less ‘thinking’ – I mean real critical thinking that gives you genuine insights.

As Henry Ford said “Thinking isn’t easy, that’s why so few people do it.”

Someone once said to me that a goal is a dream with a deadline. The key word being the last one. Having worked with high performance people and helped create high performance cultures, I believe that having defined goals that are balanced is the key.

I guess I think of them as ‘Holistic Goals’ – goals that complement the whole picture. These could be organisational or personal.

I remember being a young manager in Pepsi and our department started setting goals for key areas. When arguments started breaking out with other departments, it took a clever senior manager to get us all to step back and look at the bigger picture i.e. what was best for the overall company? This changed our view point and as a result our goals. The result? Harmony amongst departments (as much as possible anyway…) and better results i.e. they were more balanced and holistic.

Usually when I start working with a private client I explain that we have to look at the ‘whole picture’ i.e. their personal and professional lives, and clarify what they are ultimately trying to create. Why? Because once we’re clear on what they want to create then it’s easier to:

  • See what needs to be the priority focus areas
  • Create clearly defined goals within those areas
  • Identify what the possible consequences on the whole picture are by spending our time on both of the above

Once we’re both clear on the desired end result, it’s much easier to see where setting a goal can impact elsewhere negatively. Then a constructive choice can be made. That’s why I believe it’s critical to have trusted sounding boards around you – as a leader and a person.

The right people will challenge your assumptions and decisions which will ultimately challenge your thinking. And better thinking leads to better goal setting. This is probably one of the biggest benefits of strategic sessions for a team – honest debate. We don’t have to get a clear resolution, but active engaged debate will help everyone’s thinking, which will affect the decision making process when it comes to setting goals for a department or company.

I recently had a conversation with a successful business man who told me that he regretted devoting so much time to achieving his business goals, because it meant his personal life suffered.

When I asked him why he hadn’t balanced his goals he said – “I never really thought about the consequences of the way I was doing things.”  i.e. lack of thinking about what if I do it this way?

What will happen as a result of this in all areas? If I do grow the business or department by 100% next year what will be the impact on my health, my family, my relationships etc.

I’ve seen many business leaders set very high goals and then take off after them like heat seeking missiles, oblivious of the impending collateral damage due to a lack of careful, considered thought. Only to later look back with serious regret.

The right goals are tremendously powerful. But, the wrong goals can be very very dangerous.

A focus area on it’s own without goals though, just isn’t enough.

I remember having the focus area of writing a book. Being really honest, it drifted along gradually but wouldn’t have become a real book (Inspire Me) you can buy on Amazon until someone challenged me with this:  “You need to set the goal of having it done by a certain date. Until you do that, it won’t happen.”

They were right. So I did and everything changed. The power of having defined goal kicked me into more focused action. And the good pressure made all the difference.

Having read through the Harvard working paper myself, I see it from a different view point. The authors are issuing a ‘health warning’ when it comes to goals:

“Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualise goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision. We offer a warning label to accompany the practice of setting goals.

I agree with this, we do need to be careful but the solution is not to avoid goal setting, it’s to do better thinking when it comes to setting your goals.

When it came to the PR article I was writing, it had been a focus area for the previous few days and that focus had helped me get a head start on my thinking about what to write. I’d started thinking about it.
But the high pressure deadline brought out a different part of me – more creative, more focused and ultimately more fun. I actually enjoyed the process and experience. It brought me into ‘the flow’.

A focus area with a defined goal gave me the benefit of both – a sense of achievement, and the feeling of really being present.

UPCOMING EVENTS

My annual planning workshop, BluePrint, open to anyone, takes place on Saturday, 6th February 2016  – see full details here.

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