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  • Tracey Westacott

When 'why' is the biggest word - the art of goal setting

Goals preoccupy us in all walks of life. Consider the dreaded university application process. A friend’s son has been deliberating between politics and sports science as a degree, not your usual dilemma, you might think. Interested in both, he has gone down the common route of picking one that is more akin good job prospects after university. In the current economic uncertainty, it’s a valid approach but is it the best one for him and is it what he really wants?

Deciding on a degree course is just one example in our lives where we choose a path, based on a goal we think we want to achieve. Wouldn’t it be helpful if we could spin that crystal ball and check that we’ve picked the right path or, equally importantly, that we’ve been aiming for the right goal in the first place? Sadly, hindsight only works in one direction. We’ve all become finely tuned at stating our goals and targets. In companies’ business strategies, annual work appraisals, business development, school and even in kindergarten, there is a sense of satisfaction and progress in having a set of words that show you know where you’re heading. Just seeing it in ink is success - or is it? As adults, what’s sometimes missing is that five-year old in our head that used to say “why?” after every answer provided. We can all laugh or be annoyed in equal measure by the innocent probing of the young but perhaps, just sometimes, it’s because we actually don’t know the answer ourselves.

Life is riddled with examples of well-defined goals which turn out to be a false vision of what we actually want. In business, the number of mergers or acquisitions that fail is considerable. Looking back, it is often due to a concrete belief that one plus one will be more than two in terms of sales, profit and ultimately growth. The poorly articulated goal of any failed merger or unproductive acquisition is usually not only unachievable but also detrimental to many of those involved (especially staff and customers); the perceived gold through combined assets (and, of course, liabilities!) is often lost or devalued as people walk out the door or customers look elsewhere. Just ask any CEO of a failed bank merger or a CEO of a small software house that has been bought by a bigger one. Annual targets and three- or five-year business plans are another good example. Some companies may focus solely on annual sales targets alone rather than market share. These may be valid goals in some environments but not in others. Sales (and indeed profit) are often just measurable objectives that contribute or are indicators of a broader goal (e.g. to have a brand that delivers unique outdoor clothing, to be in the top three companies in the U.K. for a certain product or service, to grow market share by moving into a new geographical market). In the public sector, improved services or cost savings are always key outcomes but they can sometimes counter each other, resulting in ineffective change and much angst of competing needs from staff and stakeholders along the way.

One of my personal favourites in the land of false visions has to be innovation. Innovation is a powerful vehicle for developing and driving long-term change in an organisation of any size. However, it is just that – a vehicle. Seeing people state goals around “greater innovation in our company” always makes me ask the question “to achieve what?” The real end goal is missing and so people innovate in their processes, use of data or how they work without having a clear end point with which to measure success. Those companies that truly suck the marrow out of innovating are those who see it as a tool to help deliver very clear strategic objectives by generating different ways of doing things (often keeping it simple as in the process).

It’s only when you look at effective goal setting that you see the difference. Sport is a good example. Goals in sport are far easier to test – Mo Farah wanted to win gold at successive Olympics. The goal sealed his place as one of the greats of British athletics. The England rugby team of 1999/2000 under Clive Woodward had a long-term goal to become World Champions in 2007; such was their focus, they achieved it in 2003. We’ve all heard rugby and soccer coaches say “a win’s a win” when they narrowly beat another team. It’s obvious and perhaps a little irritating but it is true. When you play a team sport, a win is the short-term objective so you can build to a bigger goal (e.g. win a championship or get promoted). Some of the most successful companies that have grown from one-shop wonders to national (even global) brands have all started with a clear goal, for example creating sports wear and accessories that stand out and so fill a gap in the market for those who are willing to pay or creating a new way of buying music that again is groundbreaking and so will re-invent the business model for the entire music industry.

So why do we go off track? Why do we set our sights on a false end point rather than one that will serve our organisation and our people best? There are numerous reasons. Many books have been written on goal setting and having SMART objectives. This isn’t the aim of this article but here is my take on where we consciously or, as is more often the case, unconsciously veer off track without noticing until it’s too late or until we get to our destination and realise it’s not what we want or were expecting.

Let’s start with human nature. We humans have a subconscious tendency to copy. We tend to follow the crowd more often than not (ask yourself how many times you follow the car or person in front when you’re lost and trying to find an exit…). If others have a certain goal or approach to goal setting, we often copy it. We learn this in school or from our parents and continue through our working lives. Society today is full of “this is what success looks like so this is what you’re aiming for”, irrespective of the person. There is nothing wrong with this if it works but do we question enough whether it is right for us? It’s interesting how some of the most successful people in life tend not to copy and create their own approach to goal setting. Richard Branson, Warren Buffett and Winston Churchill could never be accused of being followers in anything!

Secondly, we choose a goal based on a problem that is just a symptom of a bigger issue or challenge. In setting our sights on fixing this problem, we merely ignore the proverbial elephant in the room and perhaps the greater value of a much richer target.

Finally, our thinking DNA may be coded to a certain way of viewing the world due to a specific, underlying belief. Consequently, we may choose a direction that is, for example, the safe option or the most overtly prestigious option rather than one we really want. For example, I want to get promoted so my grandfather would be proud of me or I want to have 35% market share in the U.K. in industry X to overtake my main competitor. Neither of these are very productive goals and sap any creativity in the process. They also lead to extremely short-lived satisfaction.

Finally, an added problem is not about the goal but our focus. We may start out with the right intention and aim but, somewhere along the way, we start reacting to other needs and so our focus shifts and the original goal suddenly morphs into something different. How many business cases have you read that remain perfect works of fiction, the targets set out but never delivered? Another good example of changing focus is commercial tendering in the corporate world. We may have a very clear ambition and a three-year business strategy but, as soon as an invitation to tender lands, we choose to bid for it, even if it is not on strategy and creates an unnecessary diversion of resource and energy. A programme of change projects is another good example. Having a clear programme of change requires cohesive delivery and shaving off of those legacy projects which no longer fit. Nevertheless, in spite of good intentions, there is often at least one “orphan” project which cannot be closed off, even though it soaks up cost, resources and precious time.

If any of the above sounds familiar, how can we be sure to pick the right goals and objectives in life, work or personal? There is no magic potion or I (and many others I’m sure) would be very wealthy! In business, where is your and your company’s motivation for selecting a certain goal? What is the driver? There are numerous techniques and methods to tease out where you should be heading, drawing on the economic environment, your internal and external drivers and ultimately harnessing what you’re good at and, just as important, what you like doing. These do work well but, just as a quick litmus test in your busy lives, look at it another way. Ask that five-year old that is still tucked away inside you: “why are you going for that?” With every response you give, keep asking yourself why until you feel the passion and commitment in your gut and not just in your head. Then you’ll be on the right track.


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