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March 23, 2009 12:41 PM   Subscribe

"Ready, aim ... fail, why setting goals can backfire."
posted by doobiedoo (56 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think this is more of a reason why groupthink is bad and less of a reason why goal setting is bad. Sure setting unrealistic goals that you don't abandon when circumstances change can be destructive but I think almost all of the example use illustrate how a specific culture within an organization fixated on specific goals without questioning whether the goal was really in the best interest of the organization.
posted by vuron at 12:45 PM on March 23, 2009


Our faith in goals long predates the psychological research. "First, have a definite, clear, practical ideal - a goal, an objective," advised Aristotle. Generations of managers and motivators have repeated Abraham Lincoln's line that "A goal properly set is halfway reached."

Or, more typically, under-promise and over-deliver.

Goals are one thing, but you also have to focus on how you achieve your goals. That's where things like core values and mission come in.

Ford focused on 29% market share. But obviously the company did not value innovation, for example.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:47 PM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Woody Allen said, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans."
posted by Pollomacho at 12:51 PM on March 23, 2009 [4 favorites]




This is not very surprising to me. In biology there's a saying, "you get what you select for." It seems that the same thing is going on here - if you set a goal, people will do what it takes to reach that goal, narrowly defined. This is not necessarily what you had wanted or expected them to do when you set the goal.

The challenge is setting concrete, well-defined goals that result in the behaviors you want. Or put differently, you want the incentive created by the goal to be aligned with the long-term interest of the organization.
posted by pombe at 12:56 PM on March 23, 2009


Way back in my days as a sportswriter, I once witnessed the Los Angeles Clippers proudly presenting all of their players and coaching staff with a T-shirt emblazoned with the team's primary goal for the year:

"30 WINS!"

Yeah. They were loudly proclaiming that they were shooting for 30 wins out of an 82-game season. Not "make the playoffs" or "refuse to lose" or "kick ass and take names." Thirty wins.

Needless to say, they didn't make it.

The thing is ... for that team at that time ... 30 wins was a realistic goal, if you were to look at it all dispassionately. It was just so ... fucking absurd ... to come out and say, "Yeah, we're gonna suck, but let's make it our goal to not suck so very bad, 'kay?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:59 PM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Or, more typically, under-promise and over-deliver.

Another sports example : the Toronto Maple Leafs, who, for the past four or five years, have started each season calling it 'a rebuilding year'. Then, once the trade deadline passes and they are more or less out of playoff contention, suddenly catch fire and start spoiling the hopes of all the legitimate contenders.
posted by mannequito at 1:03 PM on March 23, 2009


Most of the problems mentioned with goal setting have to do with unintended consequences. Unintended consequences that are also unimagined consequences. I think that's especially true when the goals come from far above, with no participation from those charged with making them happen. If you don't own the goal, are not involved in creating it, you tend not to think much about it other than how you're going to achieve it.

Of course, if corporations start letting their employees set the goals, they might discover that what employees want and think they can accomplish are not what shareholders think the corporation should be doing. So don't expect that to happen.
posted by tommasz at 1:04 PM on March 23, 2009


Woody Allen said, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans."

Then again, I'm pretty sure Woody Allen planned to become a major comedian and film director. And most people plan to buy a house or develop a career. So planning can work.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:06 PM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I call bullshit. Why, only today, I decided that I would purchase a donut and eat it. It was my goal, you could say. I am well on my way to accomplishing my goal, having acquired a donut only minutes ago.

All that remains is to secure some coffee.
posted by everichon at 1:09 PM on March 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


> The energy and time that might have been applied to the longer-term problem of designing better cars went instead toward selling more of its generally unloved vehicles.

A hockey team is only allowed seven players on the ice; they have to choose a balance of offense and defense to get the job done. GM has tens of thousands of white collar staff addressing all aspects of its daily operations. It is not failing because it benched their build-better-cars staff for a third-period all-marketing push.
posted by ardgedee at 1:13 PM on March 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


Six players. Not seven. I'm pretty sure about the tens of thousands part, though.
posted by ardgedee at 1:16 PM on March 23, 2009


Seems to me that the examples presented in the paper show that short-term fixes rarely achieve goals whereas long-term efforts tend to. Zero-percent financing works for a while; building more reliable cars tends to work for a lot longer. Both GM and Toyota have goals of increasign their market share I would expect.
posted by GuyZero at 1:17 PM on March 23, 2009


It is not failing because it benched their build-better-cars staff for a third-period all-marketing push.

But it seems like they did exactly that though. Where have the build-better-cars staff been all these years?
posted by GuyZero at 1:18 PM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have a firm goal of never buying a GM car.
posted by Artw at 1:23 PM on March 23, 2009


> Where have the build-better-cars staff been all these years?

There might never have been any, but the point is that their presence or absence was not sacrificed to pool more resources in marketing. Corporate resources don't work that way; they have to design, engineer and build cars, and will continue to do so regardless of their marketing budget.
posted by ardgedee at 1:25 PM on March 23, 2009


The problem isn't setting goals. It's setting the wrong goal. Sometimes when I am cycling up a hill I think things like "I'll change gears at that lampost" and I work hard to maintain my cadence in the gear I am in until I achieve that goal. However, my end goal isn't that lampost and I know it. If I'll completely wind myself achieving the intermediate goal of the lampost I'll recalibrate my goal and allow an early gear change because my real goal is to improve my fitness and not to finish the bike ride with a cardiac arrest.

You just need to make sure your intermediate goals are actually on the path to your long term goal. You can't just keep looking at your next actions all the time. Sometimes you have to look at where you are and where you want to be and make sure that is the direction you are going.

This kind of goal misfiring is an English epidemic. NHS emergency waiting room targets resulted in the creation of extra rooms so that people wouldn't be in the emergency room any longer. They didn't get treatment any faster. They just got shuffled into a new room. New Labour education goals resulted in an incredible weakening of academic testing standards rather than improved education. The University Research Assessment exercise resulted in universities hiring people they knew were not going to stay just pump up their numbers with a few ringers so they can be more likely to get research funding (even though these temps come in with hiring costs and moving expenses that will all have to paid out again in a year or two for their replacements). Police under report or minimize the severity of crime in order to meet targets.

The reason this happens is because it can due to the misalignment of the actual goal and the target that was set.
posted by srboisvert at 1:29 PM on March 23, 2009 [6 favorites]


I took this all on the level of self help! but don't let that stop the corporate analysis.
posted by doobiedoo at 1:30 PM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I make my goals as unrealistic as possible, because they're more fun to pursue. I may never actually be America's next champion arm wrestler, but it's going to be a hell of a journey.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:31 PM on March 23, 2009


The problem isn't so much that there aren't build better cars staff at GM, or that they have been entirely unsuccessful in producing better cars. GM cars are significant better vehicles now than they were during most of the decline.

The problem is that the build better cars types typically loose out in executive strategy meetings to the must reduce costs and maximize profits guys. GM, Ford and Chrysler all decided to focus a lot of their efforts on high profit trucks and SUV rather than come up with the next Accord or Camry killer. If you only have a limited R&D budget (all the automakers have been cutting those back significantly) is it better to focus on a new car model that you make neglible profit on or a truck/suv that can be easily and cheaply built to consumer needs? GM and company settled on the second scenario.

The obvious problem is that the second model is largely unsustainable, high gas prices suddenly made those vehicles less desirable and while people didn't necessarily dump them they haven't been going out and buying new ones even with reduced gas prices.

Things like 0% financing might seem stupid but if they get the consumer to buy a car they wouldn't otherwise buy then they are seen as effective at moving volume. The simple fact of the matter is the median price of a car is at the point where many families can no longer afford to buy new much less purchase a new vehicle on a regular basis. That combined with the increased lifespan of cars means that fewer and fewer new cars are going to be sold in the US. GM and company seem to be slow to realize this and are not doing a really great job about competing in emerging markets.
posted by vuron at 1:34 PM on March 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


In the case of New Labour I think setting goals is a bit broader and more general than setting quantifiable targets, performance indicators and other metrics which fits into the general goal of creating explicit output measurements to regulate, manage and cheer lead various aspects of public work. They could have set goals that relied less on quantities and statistics and gone in a completely different route.
posted by doobiedoo at 1:37 PM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


The reason this happens is because it can due to the misalignment of the actual goal and the target that was set.

My interpretation has always been that for any given incentive structure, people will game it to maximize payout while minimizing effort. And they do it much, much more creatively than goal-setters can ever imagine. If evolutionary biologists want a good time, they should sit in on some corporate sales quarter-end review meetings. If the sales incentive structure is a fitness test, these guys evolve faster than fruit flies.
posted by GuyZero at 1:38 PM on March 23, 2009 [8 favorites]


It's funny, I came at this article from an architectural journal, as you can imagine the architecture industry isn't doing great right now and so I read the link in a complete tone of self questioning. Maybe vuron's right and the general analysis of goals is a bit too abstract to pin down useful judgements, but it's a pretty useful reminder to rethink your position in a recession.
posted by doobiedoo at 1:42 PM on March 23, 2009


The problem isn't setting goals. It's setting the wrong goal.

Bing fucking go.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:43 PM on March 23, 2009


And remember: GOAL is just an alluring anagram for GAOL.
posted by everichon at 1:43 PM on March 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


The paper they reference, Goals Gone Wild, is quite a bit of fun. When I first read it, I printed out a few copies (or the Reader's Digest version) and left them in the bathroom stalls on the floors above me.
posted by milkrate at 1:45 PM on March 23, 2009 [5 favorites]


Where have the build-better-cars staff been all these years?

They were working on ways to produce SUVs more cheaply, I'd reckon. The profit margins on those were insane. I'm sure a lot of engineering talent went into making them as inexpensively as possible, and then a lot of marketing talent went into selling them loaded out for $30+k.

You don't screw around wind-tunnel testing econo-boxes and figuring out how to make 60MPG cars when people are buying all the 18MPG, 5500-pound, high-profit-margin behemoths you can roll off the factory floor. Until recently, that's exactly what American buyers seemed to want, and America was the biggest market for cars going.

I don't think the failure was on the engineering side, it was in a failure to have a contingency plan: if the survival of your company depends on selling a lot of low-efficiency luxury vehicles to subsidize the barely-profitable economy lines, what do you do if people decide they no longer want to buy the expensive ones? (And there are many reasons this could have happened besides the credit crunch, which admittedly they can't be faulted for failing to predict.) Apparently their plan was "threaten to go tits-up and hope the government saves us."

I'm actually somewhat bullish on GM in the long run; I think with their backs to the wall they may be able of pulling off some actual innovation and at least remain in business for a while -- the Volt looks like a good sign. But even if they survive the next couple of years the big question is whether they're going to get lazy again at the first opportunity. I suspect so, because (like the domestic airlines) once you've been saved from your own incompetence once, it gets easier and easier to do it again.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:45 PM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


bet you A LOG its not
posted by doobiedoo at 1:46 PM on March 23, 2009


I don't set goals. Life is more surprising that way, but I never fail!
posted by sandraregina at 1:56 PM on March 23, 2009


But a few management scholars are now looking deeper into the effects of goals, and finding that goals have a dangerous side.

Oh sure, they say that now after I finally fulfilled my goals of seeing my workplace burn with the cleansing fire. If I had known it was going to be dangerous, I would have focused on more puppy-centric goal planning.
posted by quin at 2:00 PM on March 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


it was in a failure to have a contingency plan

From GM to Monsanto, the unholy veneration of monoculture in industry. I would say American industry, but I have no proof that other nations' industrial monocultures are much better.
posted by GuyZero at 2:01 PM on March 23, 2009


If you set goals nothing happens, you might as well not bother. Oh my back hurts, it's not a very fine day and I'm sick and tired of this office.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:25 PM on March 23, 2009


This is from Wooden on Leadership, from the chapter entitled "Don't Look at the Scoreboard" and the subsection "Forget the Future, Watch the Ball":

"A good leader determines what occupies the team's attention,what they work on and worry about. This process begins with what you, the leader, are preoccupied with...The scoreboard? Championships? A sales quota? The bottom line?...As a day to day preoccupation they're a waste of time, stealing attention and effort from the present and squandering it on the future.

An organization...that's always looking up at the scoreboard will find a worthy opponent stealing the ball right out from under you."

Toyota anyone?
posted by taliaferro at 2:32 PM on March 23, 2009


GM has tens of thousands of white collar staff addressing all aspects of its daily operations. It is not failing because it benched their build-better-cars staff for a third-period all-marketing push.

ardgedee, your analogy fails when you realize that GM had years to reallocate those white collar jobs.

A better model would be a hockey team choosing, over a period of several years or decades, choosing to spend its capital on upgrading seats in the stadium, and silk-screening better jerseys & tee-shirts, instead of spending it on better draft picks. And buying ad agency service with the money saved on coaching staff.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:32 PM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow, management scholarship being discussed in Metafilter. I highly recommend that you read the actual paper milkrate links to above. The lead author on that paper is a colleague of mine here at Arizona and it is a very interesting paper.
posted by bove at 2:39 PM on March 23, 2009


A better model would be a hockey team choosing, over a period of several years or decades, choosing to spend its capital on upgrading seats in the stadium

Wait, are we talking about the Leafs again? Because oddly enough, the Maple Leaf's strategy of being just barely good enough but mostly sucking and having a fancy stadium generates them a lot of money.
posted by GuyZero at 2:43 PM on March 23, 2009


GM might have a chance, their international presence has some really good cars and if they can think on their feet, they should be able to finally start selling them here. Even if all of GM doesn't make it, at least some of their brands will survive in any case.
posted by jester69 at 2:49 PM on March 23, 2009


This reminds me of something my dad always told me when I got frustrated at sports - "It went right where you aimed it!" And of course now I realize that he was right, dammit, because I never bothered to take a breath and think about where the ball was going.
posted by backseatpilot at 3:10 PM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


The problem here was not setting a goal but how they went about trying to reach it. It was a failure of management to allocate resources in a wise manner to achieve that 29% share. It reinforces my belief that American business executives, in addition to motivating themselves to achieve the next quarter at all costs, aren't all that clever. (See recent meltdown in the financial sectors.)
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:13 PM on March 23, 2009


My goal of having sex with Gillian Anderson now seems fairly unrealistic.

The problem with seemingly concrete but in reality vague goals like "29% market share" is that there are good ways to achieve the goal and not-so-good ways to achieve the goal. Good ways might be building better cars, increasing customer satisfaction, building exciting new products, innovating, offering value-for-money, etc. Those not only help you along to your goal but make the goal sustainable. Bad ways would be steep discounting, rebates, heavy-handed sales tactics, schemes for cutting corners to dump product on the market, etc.
posted by maxwelton at 3:24 PM on March 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm not even sure they picked the wrong goal. It sounds more like they picked the wrong strategy to achieve their goal. Market share seems like a good indicator of the health of a manufacturing company, so why not try to maximize that? It seems the problem is that making it easier for people to buy the product isn't a very effective way to maximize market share, compared to making products that people want to buy.
posted by FishBike at 4:06 PM on March 23, 2009


This is from Wooden on Leadership, from the chapter entitled "Don't Look at the Scoreboard" and the subsection "Forget the Future, Watch the Ball":

Yes. This comes right after the chapter titled, "How to Get the Boosters to Bribe the Recruits with Cars, Cash Hookers."

Kidding. Wooden's a genius. But still ... funny how consistent his teams were...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:10 PM on March 23, 2009


This is why I love this place; good discussions from people knowledgeable in the area - whatever it happens to be.

I'd add my .02, but I'm late for a goal-setting meeting.
posted by never used baby shoes at 4:14 PM on March 23, 2009


describes how Sears, Roebuck and Co. started setting sales goals for its auto repair staff in the early 1990s, only to find out that its mechanics were overcharging customers and making unnecessary repairs to hit their numbers.

The first thing I thought of was the unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind act. By tying a goal of increased test scores directly to federal funding, the politicians inadvertently insured that that goal would be achieved by cheating (removing problem students so that their scores would not count against the school) and ignoring all other goals (a broader curriculum gave way to classes that only teach the students the answers to the tests.)
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:43 PM on March 23, 2009


There was a similar side effect I observed in Ontario - the easiest way to improve standardized test scores was to bring up the kids at the bottom of the class. They had the opportunity to get 100% improvement on their marks, or better, whereas the kids at the top of the class had little room to improve. So if your kid was above the class average/median, they were pretty bored.

In fairness, this was a good thing for a fair number of kids, but it certainly wasn't an improvement for everyone.

a broader curriculum gave way to classes that only teach the students the answers to the tests.

In places like Cupertino where there are schools that get get a school-wide perfect score on the standardized tests (yes, there are schools there with API scores of 1000 - every damned kid aced the test) they basically tell you this on parent orientation night. If you don't want you kid taught solely to the API test, enroll elsewhere. I guess they're honest at least.
posted by GuyZero at 5:03 PM on March 23, 2009


The problem isn't setting goals. It's setting the wrong goal.

And I'm sure that everyone who set one of these goals thought their goals were the perfect goals that would drive the company to where ever they thought the company needed to be driven to.

Hindsight is, unfortunately, 20-20. When a few people started pointing out that the goals du jour were pushing things in a bad direction they were probably taken aside and given the "your cynicism is harming the team" talk and that their manager filled said talk full of dark and ominous forebodings. Maybe five, maybe even six bodings.

There was an science fiction novel a decade or so ago where the middle third of the book was essentially a race between a group of scientists screwing around with the fundamental underpinnings of the universe using old radios and car parts while hiding out in great uncle Fred's basement somewhere versus a group of well funded scientists in the national citadel of sinister spooks and secret weapons. You pretty much only had to read the chapter where the government scientist's handler explained their time line to them to know how this part of the book was going to play out. At the time it seemed pretty unrealistic, but since then (OK, today) I tried to get my pipettes calibrated.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:39 PM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]



The problem isn't setting goals. It's setting the wrong goal.


Every body has goals. The trick is in doing the work.
posted by tkchrist at 6:00 PM on March 23, 2009


The U.S. still makes cars?
posted by signal at 6:36 PM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the real, undiscussed tragedy here is own-goals
posted by taliaferro at 7:43 PM on March 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


I read somewhere that Woody Allen originally wanted to be a jazz musician. I think he still plays clarinet or something in a band.
posted by wobh at 8:15 PM on March 23, 2009


This article kind of reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell's work. Basically, it's based on a "theory" you really knew anyway because it's more or less intuitive, padded out with some semi-interesting anecdotes.
posted by orange swan at 8:28 PM on March 23, 2009


orange swan, people often feel that way about social psychological research. It is called hindsight bias and is well documented.
posted by bove at 9:42 PM on March 23, 2009



Kid Charlemagne: "And I'm sure that everyone who set one of these goals thought their goals were the perfect goals that would drive the company to where ever they thought the company needed to be driven to. "

Yes, they did. And we explained to them at some length that no, their understanding of the goals was insufficient, and that they actually had to 1) manage, do their jobs and otherwise earn their pay, and 2) start small and work towards long-term change.

That didn't work. They continue to insist that they were right, and if only the staff would just work harder everything would be ok. But those goals aren't getting any closer...

So I'm buying the argument about wrong goals and the setting thereof.
posted by sneebler at 9:44 PM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the underlying problem is the excessive focus on goals being “S.M.A.R.T.” - specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. It’s basically used a way to see check if somebody ‘reached’ a goal, and base performance evaluations (and raises, bonus, etc) on that. Everybody is so focused on “goals being smart” they’re forgetting the single most important questions, such as: “How does reaching this particular goal make the company healthier, stronger, and more (medium and long-term) profitable.

The NHS example by srboisvert is a perfect demonstration. The goal was reached - there were less people in emergency care. NHS was so focussed on "we found a goal we could measure" that they, indeed, set the wrong goal - their worry was "how do we measure a better health care? You can't make that goal smart!", so they went "let's define some other goals that we can measure that would probably indicate that health care is better"
posted by DreamerFi at 2:59 AM on March 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


people often feel that way about social psychological research. It is called hindsight bias and is well documented

I don't often think that of social psychological research, just the kind with the really obvious hypotheses. And I remember seeing the movie In Good Company a while back, and writing an email to a friend in which I said it wasn't a good movie but did really nail a few aspects of corporate culture, such as the whole phenomenon of corporate initiatives that are originated by people who haven't thought them through/don't really know enough about the situation to have made them wholistic, and who push them through at all costs.
posted by orange swan at 4:11 AM on March 24, 2009


Life is what happens while you're making other plans. See, I planned to write a response to this post, but
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:40 AM on March 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


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