Missing An Open Goal

The concept of having clearly defined goals is commonly seen as essential. Have clear objectives, have goals and targets, and make sure they are SMART.

I’m starting to wonder if having goals is always a good thing.

If you put the word ‘goal’ into Google images you see pictures of targets, bullseyes, people on top of mountains. They all have one thing in common – they are finite. What happens after you achieve the goal?

Earlier this year I spoke on the excellent Nucleus Illuminate roadshow. In order for my slides to be accepted as CPD by the CII I had to prove that they were SMART. This got me thinking – what is wrong with learning for its own sake? Why does everything have to have a point, a goal?

Sales targets are similar. I have never been a great fan of targets when I worked for companies – I always felt I would just do my own job to the best of my ability and the targets would hit themselves.

When I was a broker consultant in my 20s I used to have a weekly sales meeting with my sales manager. Each week would start the same. “So, Chris,” he would ask. “How many calls did you make in the last week?” “Well, Nick,” I would reply, “one less than I would have made if I hadn’t had to have this pointless sales meeting.”

If you’re reading this, Nick – sorry for being such a pain!

It turns out, however, that there is good theoretical support behind this notion. I’ve been reading a book called The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman which counters many typical self help philosophies. In a spectacular display of confirmation bias I find myself agreeing with many of his arguments as to how we should stop being so focussed and positive, allow the negativity in a little and let things just happen.

Among many interesting ideas, Burkeman recommends getting rid of goals. In one example he cites the sales team who who smashed targets once they didn’t know what those targets were.

My old dislike of targets does seem to have some substance. Except there is a catch – when I set up my own business I quickly realised that if I didn’t hit targets I would go bust!

This leads me to think that there is a difference between managing a business and performing a role in a business, and I wonder if we are making a mistake in mixing the two. In my marketing role I don’t have a target for new clients or book sales, I’ll just do as much as I can. But then I switch hats to the FD/MD role and I have to keep an eye on results and direct resources accordingly.

Another solution, particularly in a sales role, might be to set expectations (is that a better word than ‘target’?) on activity. We all know that enough of the right activity brings results.

Maybe my sales manager Nick was right all along – get the activity right and the sales will come. The goal is important – but perhaps that’s best kept at managerial level and not passed on.

What do you think?


4 thoughts on “Missing An Open Goal

  • Excellent article Chris. There is a great deal of misunderstanding around goal setting (particularly in sales!). Each and every single one of us is having our own psychological experience of life via our thinking and people perform at their best when they are present, clear minded and not preoccupied with errant thinking.

    Setting a direction is useful and knowing what needs to be done is useful. Becoming attached to a goal actually reduces effectiveness because it fills up our mental bandwidth with too much thinking. This is far less obvious to business people so the best place to see the evidence of this is watching sport. Players and teams that over-think under-perform (obvious example – England football team).

    The whole smart goal thing is one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that sounds good and gets passed along from person to person without anyone really stopping to look at the real evidence. You will find as many examples of it not working or even being detrimental as for it having a useful effect.

    As I come across again and again, most sales managers really do not understand how people’s psychology works and their attempts to get better performance from their people are, therefore, often based on a lot of stuff that does not work. Targets included.

  • Beg to differ chaps .

    Isn’t the point of having a target that you then have the ability to create your route to that target ?

    If you dont have a destination in mind how will you ever know whether you have arrived ?

    Bit similar is having a script of your presentation which allows you to keep on track if you are disrupted by events.

    I know it’s not done these days to put yourself in danger of failing but thats how things work in real life.

  • Chris, some interesting observations. As a practising strategy consultant, I spend quite a lot of time thinking about goals.

    I find it helpful to distinguish between goals, objectives, KPIs and targets. Goals are, as you suggest, are broad statements of ambition and direction. Often, they are not things you can complete and tick off, as you can usually aim higher and push further. Objectives, on the other hand, should be SMART, and can be measured and ticked off. We attach KPIs and targets to the objectives, rather than the goals. I think that hierarchy addresses at least part of your concern.

    Objectives become problematic where we focus on things that are easy to measure, rather than focusing on the overarching goal(s). For example, I am sure we’ve all heard that the NHS decided to track, and set targets, based on hospital waiting times. As a result, some medical staff were found to be leaving patients waiting outside in ambulances – the patients weren’t getting treated any more quickly, and the ambulances were then unavailable. Measurements and targets are a subtle and treacherous subject.

    Targets also become problematic where they are linked to remuneration and cast in stone. The limit businesses’ flexibility and ability to respond to changes in market/competitive conditions. I like your suggestion of calling them ‘expectations’ instead of ‘targets’.

    Those dangers aside, goals, objectives, KPIs and targets are a great way to communicate exactly what it is you want someone to do. In team-based environments, they are also a great way to build alignment and make sure everyone is pulling in the same direction. But to achieve, that, they must be shared with the people doing the work. I think that if you focus on the activity alone without communicating the goals, etc., people are reduced to becoming just cogs in a machine.

    There is a fine art to goals, objectives, KPIs and targets, but I believe that with skill and an awareness of the pitfalls, they can add tremendous value.

  • Just browsing and am intrigued to find a piece about the issues around targeting new clients with rather specific data quite at odds with this piece ?


Leave a Reply