Your goals are not attainable. Not yet

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A lot have been said around goal-setting. A speed search on Amazon reveals over 7,000 results for books on “goal setting”, to date. That’s a lot of voices being loud about it. It’s also a lot of books not being read. Because, noise.

Now, I don’t wish to add to the proverbial “noise” of such a glorious attempt to set goals. Not by a long shot. But as any article, study, book, speech or presentation deck starts its existence, the purpose of this specific article is to reach people that are more likely to have access to my content. This, of course, is mostly people who know me. And it’s a simple and well-set goal, if I may say so, myself.

That’s because if, by the end of it, I’ve managed to make my point well enough, they will, in turn, adopt the idea described in my content and possibly carry on to evangelise it to other people. People that I may not otherwise have a way of reaching. That’s mostly how good ideas spread. Likewise, it’s also how bad ideas fade away to oblivion.

Why is goal setting so important?

Goal setting is a rather powerful tool. It can be used to motivate and challenge employees, towards achieving the company’s strategic targets. Now, goals that are well-set are inherently clear. One may objectively determine whether or not a goal has been successfully reached. What I find oddly interesting is that failure to accomplish goals, leads to job dissatisfaction. Come to think of it, it’s actually strikingly logical.

Taking it one step further, it is the reason why the “Goal Setting Theory” can be useful in predicting job satisfaction and, more importantly, employee engagement.

However, my actual subject here is time and why the repercussions of how you use it may affect you for years to come.

Time-boxing the tasks inherent to your goals, is actually of paramount importance. Not doing so, may be as bad as not setting goals at all.

How to go about it?

There are a few different schools of thought. And rightfully so. The whole idea of goal setting has existed since the time of Plato. It is he, who developed the form of final causality. Aristotle, who studied at Plato’s academy, went on to incorporate it into his “Four Causes” principle. However, it was in the late 1960s, when Dr. Edwin Locke and Dr. Gary Latham undertook the task of performing what it has come to be much of the research that has informed our theories of goal-setting. Concluding their research they came up with five distinct principles, to lead successful goal setting.

1. Clarity

All it takes is setting clear and precise goals. There’s nothing wrong with being prudent about it. After all, a clear goal is one that can be measured and, therefore, leaves no room for misunderstanding.

Example
You may set a clear goal to “design and implement a new process by which you will train your teams on the Lean Methodology in 2 months instead of 8 months”. And you’ll have to do it by the end of the year. That’s quite opposite of merely setting a goal to “train your teams”, which is, indeed, quite unclear.

2. Challenging goals

Raising the stakes, does it. Challenging goals require some quite careful balancing. That is to ensure the right degree of challenge. To elaborate upon this, setting too easy or too difficult goals will negatively affect motivation and decrease overall performance. The highest level of motivation is achieved when goals are attainable insofar as they are not too easy, but not too difficult.

Example
You may challenge yourself by setting a goal to “convert 45% more prospects to customers in the next quarter, as compared to the current one”, as opposed to merely — and easily — “convert more prospects to customers in the next quarter”.

3. Commitment

Acting rationally as well as emotionally will earn that for you. For your goals to be meaningful, you must first fully understand and agree to them. Oftentimes, your teams are more likely to work harder for a goal if they’ve had some hand in setting it. That is, as long as the goal is attainable and consistent with the aspirations of everyone involved, which is equally important.

Example
A product owner decides the expected outcome in a meeting, “depending on their team’s capability”. That option is quite more rational and emotional than doing so “without considering their bandwidth and capabilities”.

4. Feedback

That is to say that determining your progress is crucial. In order to determine how well you’re doing, you should listen to feedback. This essentially allows for you to adjust your goal, and, more importantly, your approach in reaching it. Feedback doesn’t necessarily have to originate from other people. It can also be the result of self-judgement. We all know that, right?

Example
You can “monitor a team’s progress on a weekly basis and provide feedback about whether they’re on track or if they need to expedite the process”. That’s instead of simply “setting a delivery date and forgetting all about it”, until it’s too late.

Incidentally, there is a certain level of difficulty inherent to such monitoring, due to implications that can be traced back to specific deleterious psychological effects. Any or all of your teams can get on the defense, instead of collaborating with you. That’s why micro-management has never yielded any considerable results. It usually produces resistance. And a really resilient case of one. Business IT has shared some interesting research results to that end.

To avoid any such unwanted effects, you need an entirely different process at work, to serve as a safety net. Developing a soft skill such as empathy, will add a great measure of problem solving capability to the equation. Patience and perseverance are a couple of virtues that may also come in handy.

Learning to handle crises is hard enough without impatience and misalignment of understanding among individuals. We wouldn’t want to add to it. Try to “keep it together” as you attempt to learn what is wrong and why.

5. Task Complexity

The trick is to NOT exceed beyond a certain limit. Highly complex goals can be overwhelming. Complexity can greatly impact morale, productivity and motivation. Your teams need to be given sufficient time to work toward the goal, improve their performance, define their best practice, or even learn what is necessary for them to bring about a successful outcome.

To do this, break a complex or difficult goal down, into smaller goals or try to otherwise decrease its difficulty. In other words, you may break down the goal and distribute it among all team members, as per their capability. That is to make sure they will collectively achieve it within a particular time frame. Don’t entirely assign it to a single team member, and still expect for it to be completed in time.

Nevertheless, as delegation goes, large teams have a way of losing focus and playing the “hot potato” game. It’s a good idea to keep your teams relatively small. It will surprise you, the level of control this little detail brings to the table, all by itself. This should become obvious, really quickly. But there is at least one other, non-obvious detail, which I find equally helpful.

The HIDDEN Property

There is actually a hidden property in setting goal limitations. Ultimately, it all comes down to keeping a healthy difficulty level towards achieving a goal. And, therefore, retain the team’s engagement at nominal levels. But how is it done? You have to understand that “time-boxing the tasks inherent to your goals, is actually of paramount importance”. It may take some time to optimise your process, but not doing so may be as bad as not setting goals at all. That doesn’t sound so SMART, does it?

Being S.M.A.R.T.

To understand the importance of this last remark about time-boxing, you should ensure a good grasp of the attributes shaping a well-set goal. SMART is an acronym. It means (and I quote):

  • Specific, as in simple, sensible, significant.
  • Measurable, in terms of meaningful, motivating
  • Achievable, as in agreed, attainable.
  • Relevant, as reasonable, realistic and resourced, result-based
  • Time bound, in terms of time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive

Mindtools has written a great article on SMART, in case you should feel the need to learn more about it.

Not being S.M.A.R.T.

All criteria of the SMART model are important in adding to successful goal setting. Failing to properly use them leads you to goals that are as good as no goals at all. A situation like this, implies mostly random efforts on your teams’ side, not nearly enough coordination and results that may only be successful by chance. To find out if that’s the case, simply try to measure them and find out how they came about. If you can’t do it, there’s probably something important missing. And there’s a description for that whole situation. It’s called “chaos”. It may begin with your team ever slightly and incrementally veering off course, but it’s usually followed or accompanied by a consequent crisis.

Avoid chaos

To spare yourself this odd impasse, there are a few bits of advice you might find yourself happy to have followed:

  • Keep a tight budget on teams that fail to follow the predefined process. This will actually help them focus
  • Re-evaluate your teams and determine whether they are cut out for the job at hand
  • If necessary, tone down the sentiment and listen to the numbers. They rarely lie *
  • Re-evaluate and reset goals accordingly

* No miracles exist, only crisis management

In the rare occasion that a newly found or restructured team is dropped into a situation of accrued debt, be it technical, strategic or administrative debt, it may require abnormally longer time to bring back the balance necessary to get you back on track. Progress may initially be hard to measure. Inability to measure progress has to do with “equilibrium”. Or “disequilibrium”, to be more accurate.

Disequilibrium and crisis life-cycle

A study conducted by Harvard University in 2005, resulted in a Crisis Life-Cycle model, which illustrates the existence of a period of time where crisis management has nothing to show, with regard to measurable change. During this period, numbers may have absolutely nothing to show for progress.

From “Agenda Crises: opportunities for change Real life examples” slideplayer, University of Amsterdam

Learning within the emergency phase will help change resume, right after the stress levels have dropped back to normal.

Quitting too soon?!

Patience is really important in that phase, until change may once again be facilitated and allowed to happen, within the adaptive phase. The whole situation calls for caution, since quitting too soon is just another way to fail, rather than resolving the problem. Quitting too late is no different. Play your cards the wrong way, and this type of failure may cripple your budget, infrastructure, HR or even your focus and strategy for years to come, as you keep trying to plug the holes leaking water.

In any case, sooner or later, your process — however optimised — should be able to provide you with at least a few hints on whether you should keep investing time and money on a project, or not. And while your process is usually the one that lacks integrity, people are also defined by restrictions, albeit constitutional ones. Meaning, there is only so much you can ask of them.

TL;DR

People have never worked well with long-term goals. They seem to miss the point, straying from their initial scope and entirely misusing their potential. A seemingly valid explanation for that is that our Episodic memory functions at a conscious level. As a result, it seems that setting short-term goals helps us keep adding bits to our Episodic memory and keep acting on them until we successfully reach our goals. That is, before any vital information has had enough time to pass on to long-term memory. And this is, most likely, also the reason why long-term goals are less likely to be achieved than their short-term equivalents. Certain bits of memory, regarding what we’re trying to achieve, may have already started passing into our long-term memory. While long-term memories can last a life-time, we rarely act on them. One could say they are sort of “archived” and perhaps put aside.

To counter this effect, time-boxing the tasks inherent to a goal, is a well proven method to trick our brains into focus. That said, let’s get time-boxing! Let’s bring our goals closer!