By this time, many New Year’s resolutions have already been abandoned. Those that have not may still be ineffective in changing behavior or achieving desired outcomes. Setting goals, as a strategy, is far superior to making resolutions when it comes to reaching a desired future state.
Goal-setting can be personal in nature, as resolutions typically are, or organizationally-focused. In an organizational context, goals can be defined for individuals, groups or the organization as a whole.
Research suggests that goal-setting can be very beneficial to individuals and groups alike, but it is not without risk. This installment of “The Third Degree” shows how to tip the scales toward favorable individual or group outcomes by setting goals that are SMART, PURE, and CLEAR.
The SMART, PURE, and CLEAR goal-setting models, used conjointly, comprise the John Whitmore Model. Sir John Whitmore was a British racing driver, business coaching pioneer, and author. Alternative formulations of the constituent models can be easily found; those presented herein are deemed the most useful in this combination.
Of the three models, SMART goals are the best known; numerous resources exist to offer variants. Therefore, this section may be a refresher or an introduction to the chosen formulation, wherein the acronym asserts that goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Each component of the SMART goal-setting model is discussed in brief below.
Specific: A well-defined goal is necessary to plan for its achievement and recognize success. Vague statements of a goal are unlikely to motivate those responsible for its achievement. It may also divert attention to defending a particular interpretation of a goal and away from productive activity.
Measurable: Comparison to a standard – the essence of measurement – is necessary to evaluate progress toward a goal in an objective manner. A person’s subjective assessment cannot be measured; progress cannot be evaluated effectively prior to a final determination of success or failure. This can lead to costly rework or abandonment of the goal. Only objective measurement provides the feedback necessary to evaluate activity in progress.
Attainable: Realistic expectations must be maintained; overly-aggressive goals are counterproductive. If failure is assured, effort is futile and will not be expended; performance will be lowered by a goal intended to increase it! Compare the scope, scale, and time required to the resources available before committing to a goal. (This does not preclude “stretch” goals – those that are known to be difficult to achieve, but are nonetheless possible.)
Relevant: The relevance of a goal refers to its alignment with higher-level goals. In a goal hierarchy, performance goals are the milestones on the path to achieving an ultimate goal. Likewise, individual goals support the achievement of group or organizational goals. For example, an individual performance goal of making five additional sales presentations supports the ultimate organizational goal of increasing sales revenue by 10%. Ensuring a goal’s relevance prevents distractions from squandering resources.
Time-bound: An effective goal requires a deadline. Open-ended goals can easily be set aside. With no deadline, lack of progress cannot be criticized; with infinite time to complete a task, imperceptible progress is an acceptable pace! A deadline prompts dedication of resources and instills a sense of urgency.
PURE goals are positively stated, understood, relevant, and ethical. Like the better-known SMART model, the terms are seemingly straightforward, yet some discussion is worthwhile.
Positively stated: A goal should be defined by something to be attained rather than something to be eliminated. “Stop” and “no” type statements – common in resolutions – are often associated with negative emotions that can be demotivating. For example, a goal statement of “no coffee after noon” may prompt a feeling of failure every time a mid-afternoon pick-me-up is needed. These feelings can lead to abandonment of the goal. Alternatively, “three cups of coffee per day, maximum” can limit total consumption even when afternoon doldrums seem to require coffee to survive. In many cases, the positive statement more accurately reflects the intention of the goal being set. Positive emotions associated with desired behavior change encourage further improvements.
Understood: Understanding the goal is necessary to guide activities toward its achievement. This is particularly important in group settings; a shared understanding of the goal is essential for each individual to make appropriate contributions according to their roles. Stated another way, a common understanding ensures that performance matches expectations.
Relevant: When using three goal-setting models in conjunction, some overlap is not surprising. See “Relevant” in the SMART goal section for a discussion of relevance. Alternative formulations of the SMART and PURE models sometimes use “realistic” for this component instead. See “Attainable” in the SMART goal discussion to see how this, too, overlaps other components of the models.
Ethical: We hope that individuals and organizations always subscribe to the highest ethical standards, but this cannot be assured. The limits of “ethical” behavior are dependent upon the culture in which it is evaluated, making this term more fluid than many of us would like. In the most basic terms, pursuance of an ethical goal should bring no harm to others through deliberate action, inaction, or deception.
CLEAR goals are challenging, legal, environmentally sound, agreed, and recorded. Again, the component terms seem straightforward, but the context warrants some discussion to ensure clarity.
Challenging: Challenges motivate people to perform at their best. This is one of the key reasons for setting goals!
Legal: Consideration of legality should extend beyond the typical interpretation. In addition to statutory law, there are various levels of regulatory control. These include federal and state levels, but additional regulations may also be imposed by county and municipal ordinances. A personal goal may require consideration of HOA (Homeowner Association) rules, while corporate governance guides organizational goal-setting. Various other sources of potential conflict may also exist; the interpretation of “legal” should be kept loose to encourage assessment of goals in relation to the entire spectrum of rules and regulations.
Environmentally sound: The obvious interpretation of environmentally sound is to have a neutral or positive impact on the natural environment. Interpretation of this term can also be expanded to improve goal-setting. For example, the environment to be considered could be an office area. A goal of increasing collaboration among cross-functional groups may inspire changes to the office environment that lower productivity within these groups.
Agreed: Agreeing on a goal ensures that all members of a group are working in unison toward its achievement. In some cases, agreement from individuals that are not actively engaged in pursuance of the goal can be valuable, even critical, to success. This often takes the form of supportive behavior, or the cessation of counterproductive behavior. For example, one spouse can support the dieting goals of the other by stocking the kitchen with healthy food options or keeping sweets out of sight to minimize temptation.
Recorded: Documenting details of a goal serves two key purposes. First, it provides an “anchor;” referencing charter documentation can guide activity, ensuring that efforts remain aligned with the goal. Second, it can be used as a commitment device. Disclosure creates expectations that motivate those responsible to perform.
Exhibit 1 provides a reference to facilitate recall of important aspects of the three goal-setting models that comprise the John Whitmore Model.
Overprescription and Remediation
Research has shown that goal-setting offers benefits in motivation and collaboration. However, the opposite side of the goal-setting coin – the risks associated with goal-setting – is often ignored. Failing to account for potential negative impacts can lead to counterproductive goal-setting, or overprescription.
Setting too many goals creates unrealistic expectations; limited resources are incapable of achieving all of the goals set. In a business setting, this often leads to disengagement of employees. As failure seems inevitable, efforts are abandoned, jeopardizing all of the goals.
If goals are too narrowly focused, efforts to achieve them may be detrimental to overall performance. That is, negative impacts may be induced outside the scope of a goal’s context. While the negative impacts may exceed the benefits gained from pursuing the goal, the situation leaves accountability for results ambiguous. For example, pursuing a cost-reduction goal may limit service providers’ ability to satisfy customers.
Conflicting goals are a common symptom of overprescription. They can lead to unethical behavior, as those responsible attempt to maintain the appearance of goal achievement. Conflicts may render goal achievement impossible, but an organization’s incentive structure and culture may entice some to pretend otherwise.
Aggressive goals may encourage risk-seeking behavior beyond what was intended. Risky behavior can be seen in financial markets, production environments, transportation, or any other goal-setting context in which challenging is taken to an extreme.
To minimize the risks of goal-setting, leaders must carefully analyze each goal in relation to all other goals. Though each goal may be independently SMART, PURE, and CLEAR, the entire set of goals must be reviewed to minimize conflicts and other potential negative impacts.
Remediation of goal overprescription in an organization relies on a culture of ethical behavior, quality, customer satisfaction and so on. These positive attributes must be valued more than “hitting the numbers.” Hitting the numbers is a short-term strategy, while positive behaviors foster long-term success; this belief should be reinforced regularly in documentation and in deeds.
A critical element of such a culture is the ability to point out deficiencies in the goal-setting program without fear of reprisal. Also, missing targets that are unrealistic, conflicting, or otherwise detrimental to overall performance should not be treated as failures. To support this, goals should be prioritized at the outset. Doing so allows team members to seamlessly shift resources to support the most important work as circumstances change.
In a parallel to goal prioritization, tradeoffs in performance deemed unacceptable must be defined as part of the goal-setting exercise. In the example above, the cost-cutting target could have been made subject to a minimum customer satisfaction score. In this way, expectations are made explicit, spurring creative problem-solving when targets are in danger of being missed.
Ordóñez, et al pose a series of questions that should be asked prior to setting a goal and suggest ways to reduce the related risk. A summary of this information is provided in Exhibit 2. A reference to the components of the Whitmore model to which each question is most closely correlated has also been included.
The additional steps required for effective goal-setting are frequently overlooked. However, the attention paid to these activities can be the difference between smooth sailing and running aground.
The subject of goal-setting is closely related to topics covered in previous installments of “The Third Degree.” Reviewing the following posts in light of the goal-setting discussion could be helpful.
“Vol. V: Group Techniques” (3Jun2020).
For additional guidance or assistance with goal-setting or other Operations challenges, feel free to leave a comment, contact JayWink Solutions, or schedule an appointment.
[Link] The Decision Book. Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschäppeler. Norton & Company, 2018.
[Link] “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting.” Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman. Perspectives; Academy of Management, February 2009.
[Link] “Three models to help you set goals.” Rob Pillans. PlanetConsulting, September 14, 2021.
[Link] “Goal setting acronyms — do you know all of them (SMART, PURE, CLEAR + SMEAC)? Myroslava Zelenska. Medium, August 31, 2021.
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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