Setting goals is important for deciding what you want to achieve in a specific period. Goal setting provides value by forcing a degree of introspection, acting as a filter to separate the important from the irrelevant and as a guide to channel behavior. Like many things in life the journey is often as important as the goal destination, however, setting goals is complex. There are many processes and frameworks to provide structure for setting goals; however, even with a framework, goal setting sometimes gets off track. Several systematic problems observed when setting goals include:
Too Many Goals: Even with a framework, it is possible to set too many goals. When you set too many goals it becomes difficult to get them done. Like any other work environment, having too many tasks or projects in progress at any one time tends to complicate and slow progress. Solution: Implement a work-in-process limit (WIP) for your goals so that resource contention is minimized.
Too Narrow of a Focus: This is a corollary to the “Too Many Goals” problem. Focusing on a single aspect of your life your hobby or career, for example, can lead to a lack of balance that might cause you to sacrifice attention on other important aspects of your life. Solution: Seek a balance between work, family and health.
Poorly Estimated Goals: SMART goals are by definition supposed to be attainable and time-boxed. Any task that has a time box needs to be the right size to fit in the time box. Determining the right size requires estimating what can be accomplished in the amount of time in the time box. All estimation exercises require a solid definition of done and an understanding of the level of commitment to the task or goal. Solution: Use portfolio management techniques to prioritize your goals. Techniques can include value ranking or weighted shortest job first. Adopt broader Once prioritized the goals can be broken down into subgoals and task and then planned using Agile planning techniques (backlogs, Kanban, and planning meetings similar to sprint planning).
Viewing Goals as Static: The world is a dynamic place. As time moves forward, life happens, and it is possible that the context may have shifted. That means that you may need to change to your goals. Similarly, as time goes by, some goals may have been accomplished without a next step or follow on goal. I have adopted a weight loss goal nearly every year of my adult life which I almost always meet. Which once accomplished is quickly celebrated and then not maintained. Solution: Consider broader adopting a BHAG type goal that requires more of a systemic approach that can’t be achieved or failed in a single step instead of single step SMART goal. For example, improve your health rather a simpler goal of losing 20 pounds. The sub-goals to support the BHAG goal can use the SMART framework. Secondly, perform periodic retrospectives to review progress and re-plan your goals based on context.
Inflicted Goals: Don’t set goals for others, and avoid having goals set for you. Goals that are inflicted on you are not owned, which will lead to problems with motivation. Once upon a time in my role as a manager, my boss provided me with my annual goals which I then turned around and apportioned to my employees. I was not very motivated even though I received monthly tongue lashings to ensure I was progressing toward the goal (I did not pass the tongue lashings down). Solution: Push back on goals that are set for you (within limits of decorum). When setting a goal, the person who is going to be held accountable for achieving the goal MUST be involved in setting the goal.
Weaponized Goals: When I first got out of school, I worked for a now defunct clothing manufacturer. On my first or second day, my boss was explaining how sales quotas were set. One of the quotas was significantly higher than the equation should have called for. When I asked why I was told that the organization wanted the person to quit and that the goals were being used as a tool to send a message. A goal being used as a weapon will almost always demotivate everyone involved. Solution: Goals are not weapons; don’t use them that way.
Goals are used to guide and motivate. However, getting goals wrong can demotivate and lead to poor outcomes. There are a number of classic issues that lead people to set or adopt poor goals. Begin by reviewing your how you set your goals over the last few years and identify whether you suffered from any systemic problems. Knowing the problems that tend impact how you set your goals before you start the process will allow you to modify your process so that you don’t make the same mistakes again!