Why Your 2015 Goals are Likely to Fail

Are SMART goals actually that smart?

At the start of the New Year, I set about to give a company-wide presentation on the topic of creating successful goals and plans for 2015.  It’s sort of traditional to use the New Year to renew your focus on setting goals and priorities; and I wanted to inspire our teams to really get focused on what they want to accomplish this year.

As I was preparing for this presentation, I found myself going down the path of the typical goal-setting advice and espousing the traditional SMART methodology, which says to be valid and successful, goals should be:

  • Specific
  • Measureable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Or should they?

As I dug into planning this presentation the whole talk started to feel redundant.  I’m sure I’ve received — and given – this advice at least 62 times over the course of my professional career.  You’ve probably heard this same goal-setting advice many times as well.  So, I decided to look for alternate ways to make my point.  I started by making sure I was clear about my own intentions with regard to this presentation, which wasn’t hard to figure out. As head of a growing technology company, my goal is to inspire our teams to be well organized and effective in their efforts.  I already know they are unfailingly smart and dedicated (really!), but in my position you have to keep asking questions along the lines of:

  • Are we using our resources in the best way we could?
  • Are we approaching our work with the best set of techniques and methods?
  • Are there any gaps in the reliability of our services or technology?

Thus my discussion on goal-setting has, at its heart, the goal of inspiring the organization to push ourselves ever further down the path to excellence.  (Actually we call it “Awesomeness”)

I wanted to approach this topic in a fresh or useful way…one that would hopefully be more actionable than simply giving a lecture on SMART goal setting.  So I started thinking about the idea of Goals and Plans from a different standpoint:

  • Why do people fail to meet their goals?
  • Why do plans fall apart despite considerable effort and good intentions?
  • Why do people in both their personal and professional lives resist setting goals and moan about the topic just about every time it comes up?

In my entire life, I’ve known exactly ONE person that actually relishes goal-setting.  Everyone else treats it as an academic exercise that you do because you’re “supposed to,” but with the knowledge that the goal and the plan are unlikely to be adhered to in any meaningful or long-term way.

Left to their own devices, many people rely on some form of chaos theory to manage their work lives:  “I’ll deal with whatever comes up, when it comes up.  No point making plans that will just be tossed aside.”

The Pain and Futility of Goal setting

Here’s the real crux of the matter and why people resist formalized goal setting exercises:

  • Goal-setting requires you to have a vision. This is fine except that you probably have several visions and not all are in harmony and certainly aren’t achievable in parallel. Thus…
  • Goal-setting requires you to prioritize your life. This is really hard to do.  I have many things I’d really like to accomplish both personally and professionally and way too many of them are categorized as A1-top priority items.  How do I choose?  Thus…
  • Goal-setting requires you to admit what’s not realistic and what you don’t have control over…what your limits are. And this is not fun!
  • And finally, setting goals and plans down in writing forces you to make assumptions about things that are not in your control. Thus you know at the outset that the plan likely won’t go according to plan…so why make a plan?

This realization reminded me of a famous quote from history:

“No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

This quote is often attributed to George S. Patton, the legendary American general from World War II.  Wikipedia however attributes it to Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800 – 1891), who was a German Field Marshal and chief of staff of the Prussian Army for thirty years.

In this quote, Von Moltke was not expressing the futility of planning or accepting a fatalistic view of what happens in armed combat.  Rather, he was expressing what came to be the guiding principle of German military organization for the next 100 years:

A military commander’s job is to prepare for all possible outcomes.  Military strategy should be understood as a system of options.  Mission orders or directives should be presented as intentions, not detailed orders or battle plans.

Under this structure, field commanders were expected to improvise and were judged mostly on how well they were prepared to adapt.

Thus, to break it down even further, what von Moltke set as policy was to create systems, not plans.

This indeed is a lesson that most truly and sustainably successful coaches, bosses and generals fully understand and take to heart.

Why don’t SMART goals really work?

While you do need to have goals in order to have direction, most goals, and the plans created to pursue them, have at least one fatal flaw: they get written in a SMART manner.

A SMART goal defines a time-boxed push to achieve something.  And often this something is quantified by a number:

  • Achieve 94% resource utilization
  • Increase sales by 13%
  • Close 25 client cases a day per tech-support rep
  • Bench Press 235 lbs.

Additionally, a SMART methodology usually makes a goal into an event, at the conclusion of which the project, push or emphasis is over… We pat ourselves on the back. Maybe pay out incentive bonuses, and move on to the next SMART goal.

This creates two undesirable effects:

  1. There is a focus on achieving immediate results or hitting a number, which may or may not actually have the intended impact.
  2. There is a yo-yo effect created, whereby a desirable function or state is alternately focused on and forgotten (presumably in lieu of the next SMART goal).

Many of us have seen companies (or people) establish goals that are pushed and pursued with such single-minded determination that they are more destructive than constructive.  Sometimes we even celebrate the achievement of the goal, regardless of the cost.  Sometimes the goal and measurement system just gets gamed.

Here are some the unintended impacts you might see based on the SMART goals listed above:

  • Pissing-off clients: A goal to hit a certain billability quota can induce a consulting group to bill every scrap of an hour, and even pad their time to the degree that the bills aren’t justifiable and clients are annoyed at you for “running up the tab.”
  • De-valuing your product: The goal to hit a sales quota can induce sales teams to discount work to bring forward contracts to the point that they are literally robbing from the future and trading away good margins for bad.
  • Producing inaccurate metrics: A goal to hit a customer service metric such as number of client cases closed per-month can leave service reps artificially closing cases and opening new ones every time they talk to a client…just so the closed case count goes up.
  • Creating new problems: The goal to bench-press 3 sets of 235 lbs. can make the athlete ignore an emerging shoulder pain so that they can hammer out the third set; needlessly exacerbating a minor problem.

Every one of the goals created above could have been better handled by focusing on creating a beneficial system rather than a hard goal and an inflexible plan.

What’s the Difference between a System and a Plan?

While there are certainly similarities, the best definition I’ve found for the difference is this:  A Plan is a tactical activity that accomplishes something in a clearly defined manner.   A System, on the other hand, is designed to accomplish something more permanent and sustainable.

An awesome example:

Last year I had the opportunity to spend time with a gentleman who works to create successful athletic events and programs for countries seeking to compete on a world stage.  His office walls are festooned with the most amazing collection of memorabilia from Olympic Games, Pan American Games and every other national and international event you can name over the last 40 years.  There’s even a picture of him leading the US Olympic team in the opening ceremony parade at one recent Olympiad.  (I’m not going to name names or the event as this gentleman is an extremely kind and humble sort.)

What I learned from this discussion is one aspect of how a country prepares to host the Olympics.  Turns out it’s important to the host country that they actually win at least a couple of medals in “their” games. Unless you are the U.S., Russia, or China participating in the summer Olympics, that “win” is not exactly a given.  So what you do is create a system that will breed competitive athletes in the 8 to 12 years between when the games are awarded and the event comes to your shores.  That’s actually more than enough time to start from scratch in many sports.  But you have to have a system.

In the case of swimming for instance; first you have to build some pools!  Then you hire coaches, create leagues, hold meets and start working to popularize the sport.

Suddenly kids who never thought of swimming are in the pool in droves.  If you build it, and promote it, they will come!

With the funding, availability and support managed as a system it’s almost guaranteed that the host nation will be able to field a competitive swim team in the time allotted.  Meanwhile they’ve also created infrastructure and jobs, developed a new recreational industry, promoted health and fitness, increased national pride and developed a non-violent competitive activity for the youth of the nation.

Contrast this with a more tactical plan like: Go find some athletes with remote cultural or political ties to your country and pay them and a coach to represent your country in the games.

Bringing this Back to the Business World

So, given that we are business people, project managers, engineers and consultants, not coaches or generals; what does this mean to us?

Let’s re-define the mishandled goals discussed earlier and improve them by using a statement of intent and a system rather than focusing on a numerical absolute.

Problem – Fewer billable hours are being generated by the professional services group than desired from a profitability standpoint.

Goal – Improve billing efficiency of the service teams.

Method(s) – Focus on things that cost the company non-billable time. Create systems that are designed to reduce project interruptions and bottlenecks.  Improve training so that the consultants can more confidently perform their functions with fewer wasted hours.  Reduce system complexity or improve technical tools to reduce or eliminate the time consuming tasks that become difficult to bill at full load.

Problem – Sales growth is falling below expectations, thus profits are declining.

Goal – Increase sales volume without sacrificing margins.

Method(s) – Develop better market feedback and intelligence so that sales potential is more accurately set.  Implement strategic selling plans, giving the sales force things other than price to use to motivate buyer decisions.  Improve marketing efforts in order to create more organic demand for goods and services.

Problem – The technical support group continues to grow while customer hold-time and case-closed rates are stagnant.

Goal – Improve tech support costs per client and case.

Method(s) – Study what is causing tech support issues and work to improve root causes to eliminate calls.  Improve client facing documentation and the websites to better enable client self-help.  Reorganize tech support teams to allow simple needs to be solved rapidly in a single session, rather than being dumped into a single queue.

Problem – I’ve gained weight and have lost the athletic form I once had.

Goal – Get in shape and re-build my muscles.

Method(s) – Rearrange my schedule so that I’m habitually at the gym four times a week.  Make a workout plan that rotates cardio and strength training.  Measure my progress every six weeks.

The common thread in all of these, as you’ve no doubt discerned, is a focus on root cause analysis and setting of systematic goals to reduce or otherwise improve the root cause.

In other words, the business goals should not be approached as symptom treatment (“here, take an Advil and put some ice on it”), but as a lifestyle or business-style systemic change.

In Conclusion

Goals are important.  You absolutely must have direction in your business and personal life.  But once you’ve established those directions, focus on creating a system that can be reliably supported and that will organically take you in the direction you intend.

Also, be sure to build feedback loops into your systems so that you have the opportunity to measure the progress being made and alter the system as results or changing circumstances dictate.  Nothing in life is written in stone and no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.  So be prepared to adapt and reorganize, but don’t use this as an excuse to work without a goal or a system.


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