Own goals

I enjoyed this Harvard Working Knowledge paper: Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting. It’s an engaging and welcome counterblast to much conventional BS about SMART goals etc.

Here’s the authors’ summary of their argument.

– The harmful side effects of goal setting are far more serious and systematic than prior work has acknowledged.

– Goal setting harms organizations in systematic and predictable ways.

– The use of goal setting can degrade employee performance shift focus away from important but non-specified goals harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors.

– In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.

– Managers should ask specific questions to ascertain whether the harmful effects of goal setting outweigh the potential benefits.

The chapter and verse is pretty interesting. One highlight is the suggestion that the stretch goal of creating a car “under 2000 pounds and under $2,000” is what led to the Ford Pinto. They also reckon the lack of taxis on rainy days can be ascribed to drivers hitting their daily goal early because business is good… and then heading home.

I also agree with their suggestion that goals can inhibit learning and collaboration. At the Show Me the Change conference earlier this month we had an interesting discussion about how performance targets often encouraged programme directors not to pass on interesting but non-conformist learning to funders because it risked losing them money.

This was an interesting point too:

Goal setting can become problematic when the same goal is applied to many different people. Given the variability of performance on any given task, any standard goal set for a group of people will vary in difficulty for individual members; thus, the goal will simultaneously be too easy for some and too difficult for others.

They suggest in complex environments it may be better to set learning goals rather than performance goals – a tip that sometimes helps people find ways to enjoy improv games, which I think are great examples of complex systems. (By the way, I increastingly think pretty much any system involving human beings is going to be complex if you pay enough attention to it.)

Hat tip: This tweet from Roland Harwood

1 thought on “Own goals

  1. StephanFF

    An imposed goal is nothing more then a quota, with no good measures. And let’s not get into mismanagement by mismeasure.

    The usual problem with corporate goals is that they are top-down. TPTB go on a retreat to Vail for a week with some high paid guru or two and they come back with a new vision for the new company. They send out the companywide memo, put up the expensive posters and immediately drop the subject. Somehow they are surprised when nothing changes year after year they do these things to us.

    Everyone has to own the goal and the only way to do it is for everyone to have a say in making the goal in the first place. Easy to do in the small scale much harder in the large. That requires giving up control at the top of the particulars of a goal to the low level managers but retaining a single focus needed to guide the company.

    For example, in Operation Iraqi Freedom there was two goals, capture Baghdad and depose Saddam. The details were mostly left to the local commanders. That goal was accomplished in record time.


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