The Trouble With Goals

Goals drive behavior. That’s why you have to beware their dangers! Here are a few to watch for:

Goals can be achieved!

When you hit a goal, it’s easy to slack off. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sales quota or the To Do list you smartly shortened so you would be sure to focus on your top few priorities. “Finishing” allows you to relax and shift your focus. Sometimes that is good and sometimes it is bad!

If completing your goals means you are well on track, taking the afternoon off may be just what the doctor ordered so you will be at your best the next day. But, if achieving those goals is only proof that you can achieve far more, take a short, well-deserved break, but don’t fall into an unintentional self-satisfied slump. Regroup, reset, and renew your focus on greater achievements.

Goals can drive unintended behaviors!

My FitBit proves it! Since the FitBit counts steps/distance and heart rate, I get zero measurable credit for yoga and very little for strength training. Thus, I have been doing them less. Not good. But there are only 24 hours in a day and if I insist on achieving my step goal first, I can easily run out of time.

Schedule and budget goals can have the same effect. When employees are measured against these it’s often at the expense of quality and customer satisfaction. I’ve seen all kinds of machinations driven by the power of deadlines and black and white budgets. Partial shipments, missing parts, and minor quality issues are a few obvious examples. One that is less common is the team that dutifully identifies the risks and potential problems associated with a plan and then does nothing to mitigate those risks because there just isn’t time in the schedule.

As you pursue any goals, pay attention to the unintended consequences.

Goals can be sorely misguided!

More and more studies are proving that football causes degenerative brain disease in its players.

What goals drive the players? Winning, tackles, unflappable focus on receivers while intentionally ignoring the onrushing freight train, and crashing into other players with as much force as possible.

What goals drive team management? Winning.

What goals drive the league? Attendance, advertising, and product sales.

Where are the goals that keep players healthy? Huh? They are missing, obviously. That’s why the game goes on despite evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE in 110 out of 111 brains of deceased NFL players.

I’ve encountered less catastrophic, but similarly misguided situations at a multitude of organizations. For example, the zoo that was so focused on attendance and animal themed gimmicks that few visitors knew anything about their mission of conservation and the fascinating and critical research underway behind the exhibits. Or the botanical garden so busy attracting people with flower arranging classes and a gorgeous place to walk that they built a membership base willing to pay for admission and lunch in the lovely cafe, but not even sort of ready to cough up big bucks for the species preservation at the core of their mission.

Goals can become obsolete!

The GOP’s goal of repealing Obamacare is a case in point. They set that goal seven years ago and their identity is wrapped up in delivering on it. Meanwhile, public support for that goal is eroding, even within the party.

Markets shift, technologies emerge, and opportunities rise and fall. Just ask Kodak. Or Sears and K-Mart. When your foundational assumptions fall apart, it is time to reassess and modify the resulting goals.

Goals create focus, clarity, and urgency, but should never be pursued blindly.

  • Be on the look out for unintended consequences.
  • Acknowledge shifts and lessons learned.
  • Swallow your pride, admit mistakes, and adjust course by looking forward, not back.

At any given moment, a leader’s job is to understand the true current state, establish the next trajectory, and be sure the organization is able to drive toward success with appropriate goals. While constancy and stability are helpful, change is the reality we live in. Beware the dangers of goals!

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