We all know that goal-setting is an important forerunner to improvement. And hard goals are supposed to be better than easy ones.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon,” said John F Kennedy in 1961.
The Americans met the deadline, although three astronauts died in a capsule fire in 1967 because of an untested escape process.
Big goals stretch our resources and make the adrenaline flow. We therefore become successful, faster. Or so the theory goes.
Alright, I’m going to grow my business by 15 percent each year and retire before I’m fifty. That’s a nice hard goal. Should help me get there.
Problematically, it doesn’t.
FOCUS ON PROCESS
Leaders are fond of thinking up quantitative goals, sometimes call performance goals. But the troops can do better when working for qualitative outcomes, often called learning goals.
There is a difference. Instead of saying “I’m going to reach the quarter-finals of Wimbledon this year”, it’s more effective to declare “I’m going to improve my best weapon, my backhand slice.”
Focus on the process, and the outcome will look after itself.
SMALL OR LARGE STEPS
Performance goals look attractive, because it’s simple to adjust the quantity in order to get the right degree of difficulty. If Wimbledon 2021 seems too hard, let’s aim for 2023. If 15 percent business growth is too tough, we’ll cut it back to 12.
Yet learning goals can be just as easily tweaked. One big step can be divided into two smaller steps, or vice versa. For now, the ambitious tennis player can aim for a great slice into just one side of the court.
It’s said that what can’t be measured can’t be managed. But a quantifiable goal (which looks great on a graph or spreadsheet) assumes a degree of control over the outcome that in practice often isn’t there.
The moon within nine years? How about scratching my nose in a spacesuit?
Photo by Fionn Claydon