Why Set Goals?

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By Perry J. Martini, Ph.D.

201502-this-way-that-way-signMost of us have fond memories of the fairy tales we read (or that were read to us) as children. They were entertaining, often times humorous, but without our knowing taught us important lessons for later life. One of the most universally read fairy tales is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. At a certain point in the story Alice comes upon the Cheshire cat at the crossroads and asks, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

The cat answers, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

“I don’t much care where,” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the cat.

In today’s seemingly ever-changing business environment, many companies come upon similar crossroads, just as Alice did. And, like Alice, most organizational leaders respond similarly — they are without a roadmap for determining where they want to take their company. These very same leaders are the ones that voice concern when they discover that people in the company do not seem to be committed to the organization and doing what would be in its best interest. If leaders do not know where they want to go or how they want to get there, how can they ever expect to lead their people in the right direction? How can they expect people to work together as a team to achieve goals that are unclear, ambiguous or worse… not even communicated?

A common analogy would be the typical, proud and stubborn husband who refuses to consult the map or stop to ask for directions because he firmly believes “I may not know exactly where I’m going or where I am, but if I just keep driving we’re bound to get there.”

As the Cheshire cat said, “If you continue without direction you will most certainly get somewhere.”

Eventually, the man may reach his destination, but it will be a slow and frustrating journey. The same applies to organizations — they will eventually arrive somewhere but chances are the journey will have been slow, painful and the destination somewhere they do not like. Companies that want to compete and win in today’s competitive and rapidly changing environment no longer have the luxury of trial and error — they must have a roadmap.

Most companies lack such a roadmap — a real strategic plan. Why is it that even the companies that have a strategic plan fail to realize real results? Here are some reasons:

  • There are no specific, well-articulated executable goals to achieve the vision.
  • Goals fail to energize. This usually happens for two main reasons. First, people below the executive level cannot see the connection between the vision and themselves. They cannot answer the question, “Where do I fit in?” or “What’s in it for me?” The goals at the executive level have not been communicated to successive levels in understandable terms. Second, the goals are incremental in nature — they fail to stretch people or the organization.
  • No accountability has been assigned to individuals for achieving specific goals by a certain time.
  • There is no system for checking progress on goal accomplishment in time to take corrective action.

The Basis for Goal Setting

The foundation for an effective goal setting program is a system of values — core beliefs that guide behavior of individuals and organizations alike. It is not uncommon for goals to conflict, whether personal or organizational. Goal conflict leads to frustration at best and organizational paralysis at worst. A well-thought out and consciously developed system of values enables clear priorities that guide choices and clears up most conflicts. Clear priorities based on values generally reveal one goal is more important than another. If the conflict involves a question of priority, vision should drive the choice. If the conflict involves what’s right or wrong, then values come into play in providing insight for action.

Setting Goals That Work

The goal setting process has rules that should be followed if the goals are to serve their purpose. Just as in sports, such as basketball and football, there is an objective and a set of rules. Without such rules, players would lack important information such as which way to take the ball and what methods of getting the ball from one end of the playing surface to another. For personal or organizational goals to guide and motivate behavior toward achievement and success, certain rules of the game need to be followed.

The primary rule is that goals must be SMART:

  • Specific — In terms of quantity, quality and time. How much, to what quality level and by when is this to be achieved?
  • Measurable — What units of measure will be used to determine if the specific expectations have been met?
  • Agreed Upon — Those that must implement actions have accepted the tasks and have ownership for their achievement. They will not only live with, but also will actively support the decisions.
  • Realistic — This is a reasonable expectation. It has either been done before or the team commits the needed resources to make it happen.
  • Trackable — A system exists or will be developed to monitor achievements on a regular basis (daily/weekly).

Concluding Thoughts

It is common sense that most people accomplish more when they know what is expected of them not only on a daily basis but also over the long term. Think of your own experience and those times when you were most productive. Chances are you had a clear idea of what was expected of you. It is only with clear priorities that people are able to make effective decisions and take appropriate actions to overcome challenges and accomplish tasks. It follows from this that an important leadership task is to clearly communicate goals and expectations in order to achieve organizational success. This communication will vary whether the person is an experienced member of the organization or a new member to the team.

Setting and publishing goals are a major step towards achieving organizational success. Keep the following points in mind as you implement your goals program:

  1. Focus on activities that add value. These actions are called high payoff activities and usually account for 20% of all activities that you or your people engage in. These activities generally account for 80% of the goals accomplished. Avoid the temptation to solve problems that can and should be solved by others. Allow subordinates to solve their problems — it demonstrates your trust in them, enhances their self-confidence and improves their problem solving skills. It also frees you to perform your leadership tasks.
  2. Establish and monitor priorities. Identify and publish what is important for people to accomplish and monitor progress on these priorities. Have the discipline required to not allow lower priority actions to take precedence over those of higher priority.
  3. Don’t give up. Keep at it… be persistent. Leaders too often identify key activities, set priorities and establish goals and then become discouraged when results aren’t immediately realized. Leaders must be persistent when they know they are doing the right things. Don’t give up at the first signs of adversity.
  4. Expect results, not perfection. Expecting perfection always brings disappointment and often leads to abandonment of meaningful goals. Fear of failure (of not being perfect) can immobilize an organization. Focus on the important tasks, be willing to experience some failures, but continue to demand results — not perfection.

Following a program of goal setting will result in higher efficiency as a common purpose is transmitted throughout the organization. Goal setting takes much of the guesswork out of what needs to be done and focuses everyone on the organizational priorities. Finally, SMART goals provide a mechanism to tie the formal evaluation system into what the organization is trying to do.

Perry J. Martini, Ph.D., is a 1971 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and later earned three Masters Degrees in Business, Education, and International Affairs. He holds a Doctoral Degree in Education with Distinction from The George Washington University. Perry was a Naval Aviator and served for twenty-seven years in multiple leadership positions. He is currently the Director of Executive Leadership Programs at Academy Leadership, and an accomplished author and speaker.

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