Goal Setting Done Right

management May 27, 2020

Most people understand that goal setting is important, but they often don't really know why that is, or even the best way to do it.  Goal setting instead becomes a boring ritual in which marginal improvements over the previous period are set, and without real skin in the game, employees can see these goals as simply formalities, not realities.  There's a better way.

Real Growth

Many workplace goals are really oriented around just doing "a little big more."  Numbers and KPIs from a previous period will be looked at and arbitrarily marked up a certain percent.  This is easy for management and frankly, easy for the team.  Just improve a little more, the message says, which essentially means, don't change anything you're doing.

But we know not just from our professional lives but our personal lives that true growth and big advances come not from marginal improvements from what we did last year, but by major and drastic changes.  Those changes have to start in proper goal setting dictated from the management team.  The management team has to realize that any goal is possible, as long as the proper resources are in place.

If you ask people to improve by one percent or even three percent, they won't really be too bothered.  Most people feel confident that they can attain such "goals."  But if you ask someone to improve by 20% or 30%, they'll sit up and take notice.  Once they get over their initial shock (and perhaps dismay), they'll necessarily have to look at things differently.  They won't be able to coast along and simply hit that easy goal set by management.  They're going to have to rethink how they do their work.  Here inefficiencies can be exposed, resources requested, and job responsibilities honed.

Real Performance

Jack Welch famously (or perhaps infamously) created a policy at GE in which the bottom 10% of the company was fired every year.  This may have led to an overemphasis on certain KPIs to the detriment of considering the whole person when looking at employees, but it did have the effect of waking up the complacent.  If no one is safe, everyone has to improve.  It's the same with goal setting.  If you have a team in which no one fails to reach the set goals, you don't have a great team, but rather you have too-easily-attained goals.  If you replace the ruthlessness of the Welch policy with proper feedback and empathy, failure is no longer looked at as a single determining factor for one to be fired, but rather an opportunity to improve and get better.

There's a video that has made its way through social media in which various sporting competitors started celebrating too early, and as a result, they often lost the race they thought they had already won.  It's the same with goal setting.  People tend to slack and relax as they get close to obtaining a goal.  That's part of human nature and not easily changeable.  But if you make the goal a real stretch, there will likely be less "early celebrating" happening and more "focus on winning."

Remove Limits

As managers, you have to lead the way in fighting limiting mindsets.  If your first reaction to a new goal set is "that's not possible" you can imagine how your team will react.  The best way to fight a limiting mindset is to immediately turn the conversation from "we can't do that" to "why is that the case?"  Tim Ferriss often shares a goal setting technique in which people will line out a specific goal as well as the time necessary to reach it.  Tim will then ask, "Okay, so how could we do it in half that time?"  When seeing the question framed positively, people don't resist, but rather continue down his thought experiment.  "Well, if we did X and we got rid of Y, that could work."  Tim then goes one further - how about if we could do it in half of that time?  Now, excitement starts to build as the point is made and which we made earlier: any goal is possible, it's just a question of resources, a focus on what the roadblocks and bottlenecks are, and how to creatively overcome those.

Thus, by framing new goals positively - i.e. introducing them and immediately asking "how are we going to do this" there's no chance for doom and gloom to set in.  People are instead unleashed on a problem-solving hunt and their brains are activated looking for answers.  It also makes the team feel valued and included.  You are no longer dictating goals from above but rather collaborating at their level.  As they see ways for the goal to be achieved open up, they will necessarily also see opportunities that will come as a result of that growth, opportunities that they might like to be involved in, which creates another layer of desire and incentive.

Thus you can see, goal setting doesn't have to be boring and routine.  It can be exciting and challenging.  But it has to come from self-aware management that knows that it's a disservice to ask for marginal improvements from great people.  Great staff need to be challenged to do great things.  And that can only be done from uncomfortable and challenging change.


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