Some problems with goals


Goals and goal setting (strategic goals, performance goals, project plans, et al.) have become such an accepted fate of work life, this next statement is liable to create a physical reaction in your body:

Goals and goal setting may not be all they’ve been cracked up to be.

Do you know where goal dogma originates? The Yale Study of Goals—“a now-legendary finding about the importance of creating detailed plans for your life,” writes Oliver Burkeman, in his essay “Goal Crazy” appearing in his book “The Antidote.”

Here’s the gist of the Yale study:

  • The Yale graduating class of 1953 was asked if they had “formulated specific, written-down goals for the rest of their lives.” Just three percent had. Three!
  • Twenty years later, let’s call that 1973, those same recent graduates were surveyed to see how things had turned out.
  • Results: The students with written goals (the three percent!) had “accumulated greater wealth than the other 97 percent combined! Just amazing!

Unfortunately the study never happened. It isn’t real. It’s myth. Lawrence Tabak debunks the study in Fast Company.

There is research that suggests goal setting can be useful, and we all know people who swear by the power and benefit of goals, perhaps you yourself have benefited from the focus seemingly made possible by the magic of a goal. But can goal setting go too far?

Burkeman, and well, many others along with him, argue yes, goals can go too far. Chris Kayes, a management professor at George Washington, uses a tragic story of eight deaths near the Mt. Everest peak in May of 1996 to exemplify what can happen when a goal is overpursued. “Summit Fever” is the colloquial term. The climbers achieved their goal of reaching the summit. But they didn’t make it back down the mountain.

Another example, this one lighter and closer to home, demonstrates what can happen when a goal is reached while opportunity for more exists. Colin Camerer and colleagues studied the difficulty of hailing a taxi in New York City when it rains. The increased demand from those who want to stay dry seems a reasonable explanation. But it’s not the whole story: the supply of cabs also decreases in rain storms. Why? Most cab drivers lease their cabs and set a goal of earning fares double the daily rental fee. Then they go home. On rainy days, that’s often earlier than usual.

Liza Ordonez and colleagues published a rebuff of management science’s goal worship cheekily titled, “Goals Gone Wild”, for which they received monumental blowback (surprising to them at the time, unsurprising in the rearview mirror) from the “godfathers of goalsetting” (Gary Latham and Edwin Lock). There are two ideas from the study worth sharing here:

  • General Motors, at the turn of the last millenium, was struggling. Company leadership set a goal of re-achieving 29 percent domestic market share. 29! became a rallying cry across the company. But it didn’t result in improvement. And instead of investing money in manufacturing a better product, it was spent on advertising in an effort to boost purchases. The goal led the company down an unproductive path.
  • Students in a lab (where much of social science research unfolds) were asked to create words from a jumbled mix of letters. Those who were given a target (that’s a goal) were more likely to cheat. And while cheating to reach a goal is one downside of goal setting, the larger lesson from Ordonez is also applicable: Real world situations are not ever as simple as the laboratory conditions they are guided by.

Now any goal-pusher worth their salt has arguments refuting everything written here. Those arguments may be relevant. Some won’t be. But that’s not the point. The point is with which goal setting has become dogma. And how goal setting, especially in organizations, eliminates other options for making sense of the world, such as operating goallesly (gasp!), as Steve Shapiro, a “recovering goal addict” advocates.

It’s easy to talk about bad goal setting as being about the wrong goals—overly ambitious, or overly narrow, or not detailed enough … but this idea, while perhaps true, requires that a set of assumptions is true and won’t change. This doesn’t happen, even in a moderately complex system—and organizations and operating environments are highly complex. John Muir: “When we try to pick out any thing by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Burkeman posits a reason we’ve become so smitten with goals is because they (falsely) relieve our sense of uncertainty with the world, that appropriate and consistent focus can eliminate and overcome the variables all around us.

That’s impossible. While organizations are familiar with managing risk, the pandemic has been a universal lesson in the folly of attempting to manage uncertainty. Recent evidence: this recent New York Times article: ‘We Threw Out Any Plans We Had’: C.E.O.s Are Forced to Embrace Uncertainty.

(By the way: Psychologist Dorothy Rowe argues we fear uncertainty more than death! Whew!)

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