Wednesday 4 March 2009

Beware what you wish for

It is systemically damaging with predictable and harmful side effects. It degrades employee performance and motivates unethical behaviours. It harms interpersonal relationships and corrodes organizational culture.

Are we talking about too much exposure to the Internet? Allowing employees to listen to their iPods all day long? Letting people take too many days sick? Nope, none of those.

We are talking about goals in organisations. The ubiquitous and seemingly benign Key Performance Indicator. Objectives, targets, goals – whatever you call them, we all have them – just some are better managed than others.

Goal setting
Two fascinating papers hit my desk yesterday on the subject of goal setting. Both, in different ways, were saying “beware organisational goals”.

The first by Bazerman et al did not mince its words: “systematically damaging”, “harmful”, “motivates unethical behaviours”. Strong, attention-grabbing stuff.

The second from Bourne and Franco-Santos at Cranfield School of Management was less controversial and more practical. They also looked at HOW to achieve goals and make the point that quality practitioners look at improving processes in order to achieve the required performance improvements.

Both said what we have known for a long time – that goals are often set with too little thought, and without thinking through the possible consequences. Bazerman’s article gives lots of grisly examples of how, under the right management pressure, people will cheat in various ways that would be comical if they weren’t so serious.

Goals are good
In between the doom and gloom of targets, both papers acknowledge the positive side of goal setting. Much research has been done in this area and neither could say that goal setting is a bad thing. It isn’t. It seems to be pretty well universally acknowledged that people like to have something to aim for, and do better when want to be seen to achieve what they set out to do.
The danger comes where goals compete with one another, are ill thought through, and where goals become too narrow, thereby shifting attention away from wider, but still important, issues.

A potential solution
Bourne and Franco-Santos suggest a 10-point checklist for goal setting. Notice how far down the list the task of setting targets is!
  1. Review stakeholder expectations
  2. Clarify and select strategic objectives
  3. Define a success map
  4. Prioritise objectives
  5. Operational-ise strategic objectives
  6. Collect data
  7. Analyse data
  8. Set targets
  9. Design an action plan
  10. Discuss and agree an action plan
Creating goals, and managing progress towards them, goes to the very core of business and organisational life. In my experience it normally takes a group of people to “buy into” dubious behaviours that sabotage the good intentions of targets to the degree where organisations can be damaged. In other words, a lot of people need to turn a “blind eye” to let some of the more remarkable stories come to fruition.

Goals that have been properly thought through, and do not set up dilemmas in people’s minds, must be more effective. And this 10-point checklist is both comprehensive and manageable.

Ordonez, L.D. , Schweitzer, M.E., Galinsky, A.D., and Bazerman, M.H (2009) – Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting , Harvard Business School

Franco-Santos, M. and Bourne, M. (2008) –The Impact of Performance Targets on Behaviour: A close look at sales force contexts, Cranfield University School of Management


  1. Excellent approach , focus on where to go before going there..if only one had that maxim in all aspects of ones life, but as mere humans we are rather maybe more complex and our world seems complex too or so we make it?

  2. From an individual's viewpoint there is an argument for simplifying things and working on only one goal at a time. Of course that would risk achieving something, so isn't too popular :-)

    Businesses don't have that luxury, but the researchers do make the point that organisations frequently go after too many goals, and don't achieve nearly enough of them. It would be interesting to know what the optimum number of goals is for an individual or a group. Because it sure is a complex world.

    Thanks for your input.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Previous post removed as too many spelling errors.

    Clear goals are important and less is often more however they need to be appropriate.

    In terms of setting direction and thius goals I am a passionate advocate of the use of strategy maps (Kaplan and Norton. They lend themselves to many circumstances whether public or private organisations, internal teams, customer-supplier relationships and individuals. As a framework they provide an excellent way of developing, presenting and importantly delivering strategy.

    If approached correctly the stratgey map focuses you on your Everest, whilst also showing the vision, tools, kit, teams, systems, support you need get there.

    To be a success you can ensure the team and people share and feel part of the map(direction)which makes goal setting so much easier if we all buy in. However it is ultimately the leader is the one who must bring it alive and give their commitment to get the team to Everest.

    Return to Jack Welchs quote "If you pick the right people and give them the opportunity to spread their wings—and put compensation as a carrier behind it—you almost don't have to manage them."— Jack Welch so is about the right number of their wings?

  5. I wondered when someone would mention strategy maps. I thought perhaps the research authors also had this in mind but coyly described it as a "success map". Either way, having a visual way of communicating goals and linkages is pretty important. Thanks!

  6. Stratey maps are something I will carry into the future whatever I do as aficionado.

    Not just what Bob says which appeals but it also works as well. It is so simple.

    Happy to wax lyrical anytime on subject.

  7. I think we make the world too complex. I agree that setting simple and fewer goals increases the chance of success. Unfortunately, the corporate world bites off more than it can chew and therefore has it's employees scrambling to accomplish more than it can and therefore accomplishes little.

  8. Two of my colleagues had an argument today. One was a project manager who accused the other of refusing to be project managed. The response was that life was too complex to be managed and the project manager needed to be more strategic.

    It put me in mind of planned vs realised strategies, and the role of emergence at many levels. Both my colleagues were right - I think where things go astray is by following the plan only, or not having a plan at all. Somewhere in between, knowing where we are going but being prepared to seize opportunity and to examine our assumptions at every stage.

  9. Oh, and I meant to say: Beware academics giving 10 point solutions. Perhaps there are no solutions, only paradoxes to be managed.

  10. Some interesting thoughts on this one!

    Chris - your point about being careful of "10 point solutions" - I think you are right that there are no silver bullets and any model or list won't be perfect. But, our friends in academia do what we in business don't have time to do. They create models and make new connections to help us think about the way we work. And even if we criticize or modify the model, it gives us a better starting point.

    And, oh, do I so know what your mean about your project managers ....

  11. Hi Lawrence - interesting that you agree with the idea that corporations set too many goals. The question of how many goals we can usefully be working on at any one time is an interesting one. Any thoughts?

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