Since early childhood we are taught about setting goals. As we enter the business world we start hearing acronyms like SMART and HARD to better help us write and allegedly better achieve our goals. Now, there is a move afoot (primarily academic) that says “we shouldn’t write goals, they hurt us.” While I disagree with that academic suggestion, I do believe there is learning for us all in the obvious ignorance of their premise.

First I’d like to start with a question–“why do we need goals?”

To write and achieve a proper goal we have to ask ourselves that question, lest we simply feed academic research. First, we need to define “goal.” Webster’s provides a good starting point:

“GOAL: the terminal point of a race… …the end toward which effort is directed…”

So, what happens if we don’t have a goal? If we don’t have a terminal point of a race, how do we know when it ends or where we are in the race?

The simple fact is this: without goals, organizations (and our lives) would exist without meaning or purpose. Saying we don’t “need” goals is a ridiculous premise. We have to have goals, and even if we say we don’t have any, we do, since it is part of how our mind works.

The research examples cited in their papers point to cases like the Ford Pinto, Enron and Sears Service advisors and even faults GM’s “29” strategy (chasing 29% market share). The concept of “goals” wasn’t what led to failures or bad behaviors, it was the efficacy of the goals, the culture of the organization, the working systems that they were crafted and executed within and the character of the ones using their goals as a justification for doing the wrong things. Having goals is not good or bad, it is simply having goals.

How we set our goals, the motivation behind those goals and how we execute to achieve those goals is where we find the measure for good and bad. My simple question to the academics who state that goals are bad things is “what was the intent of your research, did you not have a “goal” in mind?”

Seth Godin, bestselling author and speaker, wrote an obscure little booked called “Pick Four” in which he simplified Zig Ziglar’s original goals program. In his book he speaks to the brain science behind having goals (yep you guessed it, referring to other scholarly research). Ziglar and Godin point out that:

✓ Goals direct our attention and ultimately our effort – give us focal points
✓ Goals have an energizing function and provide for intrinsic motivation
✓ Goals positively affect our persistence.

✓ Goals rally us to apply our knowledge and strategies to the problem at hand.

Every example offered by the scholars against goal setting or the research used to support goal setting is premised on setting the right goals based on:

1) The person/organization involved and the ability to actually accomplish the goal
2) The culture/environment in which the goal is to be executed
3) The alignment of the goal to something bigger than the goal
4) The right measurement system

5) Good execution and performance management

If you’re leadership is guided by the latest research I would implore you to consider the logic of the premise that research is based on. Make sure you aren’t buying into it because it makes your life easier (like doing away with performance appraisals – another rant I’ll deal with some other time). If you want to grow your business (or simply survive), goal setting is a necessity, just do it right! By the way I’m still waiting for a response to the question posed to the academics that said their research shows setting goals is bad – “so what was the goal of your research?”

It’s really pretty simple, just not always easy.

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