When Goals in Life Fail

When Goals Fail

“There’s a guy at your office named Bill. He’s not accomplishing his goals in life. Why not?”

I periodically throw this question out when I’m giving a talk on leadership or goal setting. It doesn’t matter whether I’m speaking to entrepreneurs, executives or management students, the response is almost always something like the following:

“Bill’s not dedicated.”

“He’s not a hard worker.”

“He’s goofing off.”

And so forth. Before anyone suggests that they should just “kill Bill,” I ask them how they know Bill is goofing off. Occasionally, someone in the audience beats me to it, saying “You didn’t give us any information about Bill.”

That’s when someone tells me in no uncertain terms that it doesn’t matter. At their company they focus on results! If Bill’s not delivering, it doesn’t matter why not.

This is a noble, if dangerous, sentiment. Goals are a very powerful tool, like all power tools, if you don’t use them correctly you can get hurt, when goals fail.

I used to be a competitive fencer. In competitive sports something very interesting happens, those athletes who focus entirely on results are less likely to win. Indeed, like some sort of Zen paradox, the greater the focus on outcomes, the less likely you are to obtain those outcomes. Athletes who focus on process, vision and strategy on the other hand, tend to win more often and win more difficult competitions.

The problem with goals, especially in small companies, is that they are all too often set based on the wishes of managers and CEOs. Setting a goal does not mean that it will just happen, any more than setting a goal that you will find a pony under your Christmas tree will cause that pony to appear. Even when the goals are more realistic, they often feel disconnected or arbitrary to employees.

In sports, an athlete sets goals based on their overall strategic vision and long-term vision for themselves in their sport. Goals that do not fit into this overall framework are not carried out. Businesses are in the same boat. Goals must flow from the overall strategic thinking and vision of the leaders of the company. If that long-term strategic thinking isn’t there, the goals appear arbitrary or people become consumed in argument over whether they’ll actually get the company anywhere useful. This is not a productive argument. Arguing over whether the goals are correctly designed to get the company to an agreed upon destination, on the other hand, is extremely productive

What makes this second situation so much more useful than the first? When goals flow from the overall strategic vision of the company, there is agreement about the ultimate point of the goals. This agreement makes it possible to develop strategies for accomplishing those goals. The more the company can focus on strategy, then, like the athlete, the more likely they are to succeed.

When an athlete focused on strategy loses, that athlete sits down with her coach and revises the strategy. The failure to accomplish a goal is feedback. That feedback, in turn, permits the strategy to be revised or new strategies to be developed. Businesses need to take the same approach. Failure is feedback. What did it tell you?

One of the secrets to making this work in practice is to break goals in life into smaller goals. The earlier you get feedback, the sooner you can change course. For every result desired, develop multiple strategies and see which ones work best, or at all! Recognize that you often can’t tell at the beginning how difficult a goal actually is, or how long it might take to accomplish. Part of your strategy is setting goals to figure that out!

What is the feedback that you are getting telling you about how well you are using your tools?

About the Author

Stephen Balzac is a consultant and professional speaker. He is president of 7 Steps Ahead (www.7stepsahead.com), an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses increase revenue and build their client base. Steve is a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play,” and the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” due out from McGraw-Hill in Fall 2010. You may contact him at 978-298-5189 or steve@7stepsahead.com.

Further Reading

Achieving Goals: An interview with the Goals Guy

The Importance of Goal Setting


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