Saturday 1 July 2023

Do Highly Effective Managers set Goals?

In theory, goal setting is an important part of business management. That’s what the management books say. Indeed, that’s what research says.

In practice, it’s a hit and miss ideal that is too often done by sleep walking through the process. 

Annika, a manager in a large global company told me:

“Yes, we set goals, but they tend to be reactive rather than strategic. There’s no formal reporting, they are just discussed one to one in meetings.” 

Patrick, who has worked in a (different) large global company for many years said:

“Yes, we have goals. But they don’t last long. They get forgotten and new goals are set. No one explains why the goals changed, and no one notices whether the original goal was met or not.”

Sally works in a (very) large public sector organisation, and she told me: 

“Yes, we have annual goals, but they don’t really matter.”

Is this typical? Or are there managers out there using goals in an intelligent and effective way?

In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is. Apart from this being one of my favourite quotes, when it comes to goal setting the gap seems wide and deep. 

So, what’s the reason? Have managers been scarred by trying to set goals that no one will get behind? Have they worked hard to create goals that at best don’t produce the desired results, and at worst actively harm the organisation? Or do goals seem to be easy, but in practice are complicated little beasts?

I suspect there are some good reasons why people find goal setting – and goal achievement – difficult in an organizational setting.

First, let’s just review what research tells us is a “good” goal:

The goal is important. Oddly, people don’t like making an effort for goals that don’t matter. 

The goal is difficult. What is commonly referred to as a stretch goal. However, it also has to be achievable. People don’t go above and beyond for something they don’t believe is possible. 

The goal is measurable. Which implies you have a way to measure it. This isn’t always easy.

In the context of a busy division or department, when people are trying to work smart to get routine work done, you can see how goal setting doesn’t get done. Or if it does, it doesn’t get done well and everyone loses heart. 

Whether you are setting KPIs, or it's modern cousin the OKR, careful thought and work is needed to both create the goal and follow through with a good measurement sysem. 

So, is the reason that managers don’t set goals is that the process is difficult? And risky?

Would managers be more effective if they could set important goals, and follow through with accurate  reporting that allows everyone to see where they are, and what they need to do to be successful?

What do you think? Do you manage a team? Do you regularly set goals for your team? If so, how well does the process work? And how often do you follow through so that everyone can learn from the process?

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