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Considering Not Setting Goals in 2013?

December 17, 2012

Heavily borrowed content from HBR article, Consider Not Setting Goals in 2013 by Peter Bregman.

Bregman argues that goals can be destructive and offers a modified approach to the design and application of goals by establishing and using Areas of Focus. In this article, I discuss the use of a tactical strategy for leveraging Bregmans’s model at the team and/or individual contributor level.

We all know how important it is to have goals, right? And not just any goals, but stretch goals. Big Hairy Audacious Goals (or BHAGs, as they’re known to the inner goal-setting crowd).bigstockphoto_Business_Team_Work_2168990

It makes sense: if you don’t know specifically where you’re going, then you’ll never get there. And if you don’t set the bar high enough, you’ll never live up to your potential.

This is accepted common sense in the business world and it’s reinforced by research. Like that study done on the Harvard Business School class you may have heard of, in which only 3% of the graduating students wrote down clear goals. Twenty years later, those 3% were worth 10 times the worth of the rest of the class combined. Compelling, right?

It would be if it were true. But it isn’t. That study doesn’t exist. It’s pure urban myth.

Still, that’s just one specious story. Questioning the wisdom of setting stretch goals is like questioning the very foundation of business. We might debate which goals to set, or how to set them, but who would debate whether to set goals at all?

It’s not that goals, by their nature, are bad. It’s just that they come with a number of side effects that suggest you may be better off without them.

The authors of a Harvard Business School working paper, Goals Gone Wild, reviewed a number of research studies related to goals and concluded that the upside of goal setting has been exaggerated and the downside, the “systematic harm caused by goal setting,” has been disregarded.

They identified clear side effects associated with goal setting, including “a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.”

Here are two of the examples of goals gone wild the authors described in their paper:

Sears set a productivity goal for their auto repair staff of bringing in $147 for every hour of work. Did this motivate employees? Sure. It motivated them to overcharge on a company-wide basis.

Remember the Ford Pinto? A car that ignited when it was rear-ended? The Pinto resulted in 53 deaths and many more injuries because workers omitted safety checks in pursuit of Lee Iacocca’s BHAG goal of a car that would be “under 2000 pounds and under $2,000” by 1970.

And here’s another, via the New York Times:

Ken O’Brien, the former New York Jets quarterback, was throwing too many interceptions. So he was given what seemed to be a pretty reasonable goal — fewer interceptions thrown — and penalized financially for every one. It worked. He threw fewer interceptions. But only because he threw fewer passes. His overall performance suffered.

Can we predict the negative side effects of a goal?

When we set goals, we’re taught to make them specific and measurable and time-bound. But it turns out that those characteristics are precisely the reasons goals can backfire. A specific, measurable, time-bound goal drives behavior that’s narrowly focused and often leads to either cheating or myopia. Yes, we often reach the goal, but at what cost?

So what can you do in the absence of goals? It’s still often necessary to drive toward achievements, especially in business. We need help setting direction and measuring progress. But maybe there’s a better way to achieve those things while sidestepping goals’ negative side effects.

Bregman: Instead of identifying goals, consider identifying areas of focus

Nielson: Develop and apply key accountability statements for both an Area of Focus (i.e. a department or functional team) and to individual roles

A goal defines an outcome you want to achieve; an area of focus establishes activities you want to spend your time doing. Key Accountability statements can be used to define the area of focus and the individual role.

For either the Area of Focus or for defining a role, we identify 4 to 7 key accountability statements that define the “purpose”. Each statement clearly states the qualitative expectations for performance. Key accountability statements can have goals or objectives embedded in the statement. To provide additional clarity, sub-bullets can be used to support the scope of the key accountability statement.

If the Job Could TalkWhat Key Accountabilities are not

A goal is a result; an area of focus is a path. A goal points to a future you intend to reach; an area of focus settles you into the present. Key accountabilities are both present and future-based and, most importantly, action-oriented. Key accountabilities are highly tangible. Key accountabilities are not consistently found in most job descriptions. In fact, most job descriptions are so insignificant hiring managers are developing the job description at the demand of the human resource department at the time of an opening. No job description, no recruiting. No recruiting, no hire. Once the person is hired, the job description is forgotten. Key accountabilities are never forgotten. They are used to guide the person’s behavior and performance. They are used for benchmarking the job’s talent requirements, advertising collateral in job postings, focus of discussion during the “new hire onboarding stage”, a guide to regular performance review discussions, identifying gaps in organizational capacity, justifying headcount – and achieving BHAG goals.

A sales goal, for example, might name a revenue target or a specific number of new clients won. An operations goal might articulate a cost savings.

An area of focus in sales, on the other hand, might involve having lots of conversations with appropriate prospects. An operations area of focus might identify areas you want to explore for cost savings.

Obviously these aren’t mutually exclusive. You could have a goal and an area of focus. In fact, one could argue that you need both together — the goal specifies where you’re going and the area of focus describes how you plan to get there. Key accountabilities add the tangible “how” in powerful action statements.

Can an area of focus exist without a goal? Can key accountabilities exist without a goal?

An area of focus and key accountabilities tap into your intrinsic motivation, offer no stimulus or incentive to cheat or take unnecessary risks, leaves every positive possibility and opportunity open, and encourages collaboration while reducing corrosive competition. All while moving forward on the things you and your organization value most.

In other words, an area of focus offers all the advantages of a goal without the negative side effects.

How do you do it? It’s simple: identify the things you want to spend your time doing — or the things that you and your manager decide are the most valuable use of your time — and spend your time doing those things. The rest takes care of itself.

The key is to resist the temptation to simply identify an outcome you want to achieve without qualifying “how” it is to be accomplished. The interesting side note about using key accountabilities is that both managers and incumbents consistently report the collaborative development of key accountabilities and benchmarking the job has been “one of the most valuable activities we’ve done to improve the organization” and “this is the first time I feel clear about my role and that my boss and I are on the same page”.

In other words, if we focus on executing key accountabilities instead of focusing on the outcome, we can enjoy the truth stated by Aristotle that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. Isn’t it interesting that “whole” rhymes with “goal”?

The Nielson Group assists managers with developing key accountabilities for “areas of focus” and “roles” that are aligned with and properly support organizational goals and benchmarking the talent requirements of the job for both hiring top performers and developing organizations. We also provide executive coaching, team development and high-potential development services. Ask about our TriMetrix® HD total talent management system. Learn more by contacting Carl Nielson at or calling at 972.346.2892. Our website is

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 17, 2012 9:46 pm

    This is a great article. Understanding and articulating the key accountabilities are very critical for success. I agree completely but just understanding the key accountabilties is not enough. The intensity of the effort is always directly correlated to reaching a goal or not.
    In my experience, having a clear understanding of the goals to be achieved combined with key accontabilties (areas to focus on) will be the optimal way to get ready for 2013 and beyond.


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