Don’t Set Goals. What a Smart idea.

Smart Goals

Smart Goals

We all seem to believe that goal setting is essential for improving productivity and performance. And, of course, goals must be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-sensitive. And let’s not forget strategic. (In fact, maybe SMART should be SMARTS: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-sensitive and Strategic.)

But you know what they say about too much of a good thing. Evidently that applies to goal setting as well. Harvard Business School reported in “Goals Gone Wild” that goal setting can actually produce “harmful side effects” and the benefits of goal setting have been exaggerated.  The paper cited several detrimental side effects including:

- risky and unethical behavior;
- reduced employee motivation and performance;
- diminished interpersonal relationships.

They said that goal setting should be viewed as “prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision. We offer a warning label to accompany the practice of setting goals.”

We think that a fixation or dependence  on goals results in tunnel vision and stifles creativity and innovation. We need to be available to be serendipitous, to drop everything and seize the day, so to speak.

Yet NOT setting goals is almost counter intuitive. If you don’t know where you want to go, you’re just going to wander.  And certainly NOT setting goals is “un-corporate” behavior that might be risky to your career.

So what is the solution for setting goals?

Peter Bregman suggests identifying areas of focus instead of goals. For example, instead of setting a sales goal of opening five new accounts every quarter, you could establish a sales focus that would involve “having lots of conversations with appropriate prospects.”  That’s a bit casual, but he’s on the right track. Perhaps blending Stephen Covey’s Habit #3 “First Things First”, Bregman’s focus and traditional corporate SMART would be a more balanced approach that would produce fewer harmful side effects.

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