Linear, traditional goal setting does not work with our fast-changing society.

Leaders! What Traditional Goal Setting Really Allows You To Do

Written by on February 5, 2014

Set your goals, plan your work, and work your plan. The linear focus of traditional goal setting is incompatible with today’s world. Too many variables, complications, complexities, and opportunities throw themselves into our path. Adhering precisely to a plan is probably unwise, even if it were possible. That being said, we do need plans; we need something to improvise against, a preliminary route that will allow us to take the best detours.

Plan On Improvising

One can’t improvise in a vacuum. In comedy shows, the players are given a scenario that they act out. In the British Whose Line Is It Anyway television show, for instance, players must enact a scene in which each sentence starts with the subsequent letter of the alphabet and go through the entire alphabet once. This is their situation, but how they accomplish it is up for grabs. In business terms, our “situation” might be extending product lines, streamlining business processes, or entering new markets. These are broad targets, and they allow us room to improvise.

Doesn’t this fly in the face of decades of research and conventional wisdom indicating that setting specific goals leads to higher levels of performance? Yes, and that only underscores the importance of reevaluating our stance on goals. In Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting, Lisa D. Ordonez, et al, writes that specific goals have been “promoted as a halcyon pill for improving employee motivation and performance in organizations.” It is a pill, they say, that has been over-prescribed.

Narrow Goals: Narrow Focus

What often happens is that we focus on the goal to the exclusion of other avenues or opportunities. In the famous “Invisible Gorilla” psychology experiment, for instance, an observer is asked to watch a video in which two teams are passing around a basketball. Asked to count the passes between those dressed in white, observers immediately ignore those dressed in black. It makes sense – just as setting goals makes sense! And here’s what happened…half of the study participants missed noticing a man in a gorilla suit walking calmly through the room, beating his chest, and sauntering away!

You might ask yourself, “Who would miss a gorilla? That’s absurd!” And yet, these results have been replicated countless times, and in different formats. “Selective attention,” blocking the details that do not fit with our particular schema of the world, applies directly to goal-setting.

We can become so focused or fixated on meeting a specific revenue goal or cutting costs by a certain percentage, that we miss the gorilla. That “gorilla” could be a threat. It could be an opportunity. It could simply be an amusing diversion. In any case, our linear goal-attaining mindset has blocked it from our attention.

The ability to improvise against a plan is far more important than the plan itself. Flickr, for instance, did not start as a photo-sharing service. Rather, its creators wanted to build an online game experience, similar to World of Warcraft. They realized that the photo-sharing aspect of the game was far more popular than the actual game, so they improvised on their plan. Let’s drop the game and focus on photos. If they had adhered to their goal of creating an online game, they would probably have doomed their overarching vision of attracting users, increasing profitability – and ultimately staying in business.

When we have a plan AND the flexibility to improvise, we can achieve a better, more inclusive, view of the landscape. Ray Williams writes in Psychology Today, that it is helpful to distinguish between “intentions” and “goals.” “An intention is a direction we want to pursue, preferably with passion.” When we set our intention – or broad target – we are free to improvise and adapt, recalibrate and course correct, to ensure it is realized.

And to underline that this is not really new news, Harlan Cleveland declared in The Future Executive over 40 years ago that strategy is “continuous improvisation on a general sense of direction.”