Setting the right goals. The “right goals” should encourage the desired behavior, that’s aligned with the organization's values, vision and purpose.

Setting the Right Goals

As we prepare for the start of a new year I’m sure many of you are also drafting and setting your goals for 2013. By now, we all know that setting goals is important. Goals help us and our companies achieve our desired results, which are our definition of success.

However, that’s only true if we set the right goals. But what are the “right goals”? And what are the “wrong goals”?

I would like to offer you the following definition of right and wrong goals.

Conventional management training programs teach that “good goals” should be specific, measurable, realistic, and time-bound. And yet, experience and research teach us that such goals often have some very negative side effects.

The authors of a Harvard Business School working paper, Goals Gone Wild, reviewed 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.

They identified clear side effects associated with goal setting, including “a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.”

Here are two examples of bad goals setting from the above paper:

  • Sears set a productivity goal for their auto repair staff of bringing in $147 for every hour of work. Did this motivate employees? Sure. It motivated them to overcharge on a company-wide basis.
  • Remember the Ford Pinto? A car that ignited when it was rear-ended? The Pinto resulted in 53 deaths and many more injuries because workers omitted safety checks in pursuit of Lee Iacocca’s BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) goal of a car that would be “under 2000 pounds and under $2,000” by 1970.

A specific, measurable, time-bound goal drives behavior that’s has a short-term narrow focus. In addition, it often leads to either undesired behavior or myopia. These are the “wrong” kind of goals. When you measure numbers you get numbers. Yes, we often reach the goal, but are we creating value that would lead to sustainable success?

In my humble opinion, the “right goals” should encourage and entice the right behavior, that embodies the organization’s values. Also, such goals should reflect your priorities, vision, and purpose. Furthermore, you should define goals in such a way that leaves room for creativity, innovation, and intrinsic motivation.

Here is a good example: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” (John F Kennedy, 1961).

So take another look at your goals for 2013 and see if they are “right” for you. Do they reflect your priorities, values, and long-term vision? Are they likely to drive your desired behaviors, or might they encourage some undesired ones? Do they inspire you? What are their potential side effects? Do they leave enough room for other people’s creativity and innovation?

I wish you all the best in pursuing your goals in 2013.



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