Monday, November 12, 2007

Aim it easy

This week, a friend was telling me about how his boss was harassing everyone in the department by giving extremely difficult goals to achieve. It was supposed to be the so called MBO or the Management by Objectives that was first popularized by Peter Drucker. Objectives for MBO must be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Specific), but of course my friend's boss was conveniently ignoring the "achievable" and "realistic" dimensions of objectives. Having worked in the corporate sector, I have seen first hand how goal setting - a purported motivational tool, often becomes the cause for demotivation among employees. Although, my today's blog was inspired by the conversation that I had with my friend, it does not relate to corporate goal setting. Instead it deals with personal goal setting, but hopefully some of my thoughts will throw some light into the process of corporate goal setting too.

Most people have heard about the power of goal setting. There is a huge consulting and self-help industry that promises people the fulfillment of their dreams through the use of goal setting. Goals make us look forward. They are things that we want or wish for in our lives. We dramatically increase our chances of getting our dreams fulfilled, when we clearly identify what we wish to achieve, set a time frame within which we want to achieve our goals, and continually monitor our progress. As regards the difficulty level of goals, it is said that the goals should be difficult but achievable in order to have the best motivational effects. The assumption is that setting reasonably difficult goals for yourself motivates you to work towards those goals. This increases the chances of success, and the achievements are typically higher than what would have happened without setting any goals.

I’m not here to criticize the power of goal setting. Goals truly are often very effective. My only contention is about the difficulty of goals. I think that goals don't have to be difficult in order to be effective. This is in contrast to the views of Ed Locke who did lots of pioneering research on goal setting. I do not deny the advantages of setting goals that are reasonably difficult, but I think the process has some serious disadvantages too. Also, there is a lot of power in setting goals that are easy, which has not been properly recognized. Let me first start by establishing that setting difficult goals is not a necessary condition for success. Many great people did not actually start by setting big goals for themselves. Many in fact, just kept doing what they were passionate about and ended up being great success stories. Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, did not set a goal for himself to be a great man. Neither had the Beatles’ members set the goal to be the greatest rock group of all time. In other words, people can and do achieve big successes even without setting difficult goals for themselves.

Not only is the setting of difficult goals not necessary for high achievement, the process can also hinder success in an endeavor. We all know of instances where difficult goals demoralize people because of the perception of the goals being unachievable. This happens even when the goals were set voluntarily and without any external pressure. People often set tough targets for themselves while in a state of excitement but later find it impossible to keep up with those targets. This leads them to giving up completely, or there are bouts of frenzied effort followed by periods of resignation and despair. Both the situations are not conducive to high achievement.

Easy goals can also be motivating, and in the long run can lead to unimaginable levels of success. Most people understand how difficult goals can motivate a person. Difficult goals are often like wishes and ideals which we strive for. Difficult goals provide a direction for where we want to be in a specific period of time. They help set high standards of performance. Also, the process of setting a difficult goal can actually make a person feel more self-efficacious. Despite these potential positives, difficult goals often don’t succeed in motivating people, especially after the initial enthusiasm over the difficult goal tapers off.

For easy goals the issue of self-efficacy rarely crops up because of the obvious fact that these goals are easily achieved. However, easy goals still motivate and can help in achievement of big success in the long run. Easy goals are less affected by the idiosyncratic variations in daily life. For example, a person might be able to devote a lot of time on a difficult goal on Monday but not on Tuesday because of certain exigencies coming up. Such situations however, may not turn out to be so problematic for easy goals. Easy goals typically would take lesser time and so should efficiently fit into differential conditions of days. In other words, easy goals are relatively immune to exigencies. This is the biggest power of easy goals. They are easily implementable. Difficult goals despite being logically more plausible, don’t help as much because they require high investment in time and energy. Easy goals in contrast are often accomplished with lesser time and effort.

Okay, easy goals are easier accomplished than difficult goals – that’s probably stating the obvious. But how can easy goals motivate? If a goal is easy, why and how will it motivate a person to achieve excellence? These are valid questions, but strangely easy goals do motivate people to achieve higher standards. It is very much like saving a small amount in your bank regularly and reaping huge amounts of wealth through compound interest after years. The key to easy goal setting is to make the easy goals baseline goals. For instance, instead of setting a goal to do the highest amount of work per day, one can set a very easy target that will be the minimum one would accept from oneself. You will not let yourself not accomplish an easy goal, whatever the circumstances. So a professional author could have an easy goal of writing at least 2 pages per day, instead of difficult goals like completing the manuscript within (say) one year or writing 20 pages per day. The long term difficult goal of getting the manuscript ready within a year, may seem to have no problems but it does. Enthusiasm for long term difficult goal usually wears off after first few days or weeks of setting the goal. Thus it is more likely for the person to stray off and not be focused on the goal. In contrast, easy goals steadily move a person forward and can yield big pay offs in the long run. The problem with the annual goal is that it won’t work in isolation. Goals are effective only when they are combined with a good monitoring process; so additional short-term goals like writing 20 pages per day may become essential. However, if the author sets a difficult goal of writing 20 pages daily he may not always have the time and energy to write 20 pages. Thus, chances are high that he will not accomplish his goal on a regular basis. It will be great when he does, but on the days he does not, he will probably end up being grouchy for not having accomplished his goal. He will not able to enjoy other important aspects of life. Also, the failure to achieve the goal one day might affect his writing the next day: he may either still be de-motivated because of his previous day’s failure or extra-motivated to compensate for his missing target. Writing in de-motivated state may not bring out the best from the author, and trying to make up for the previous day’s loss can make an already difficult goal impossible to achieve thereby only piling up more failures. Either way he ends up fighting a losing battle. In contrast, the goal of writing at least 2 pages per day will be easy to accomplish. The author can definitely write more and will certainly do when his creative juices are flowing well, but will not accept a target less than 2 pages even if all that he wrote turns out to be crap the next day. The author will enjoy his writing more with easy goals because his goal would not be controlling his writing, and in a year or so he may actually be ready with a great manuscript.

The Emphasis on difficult goals is probably there because of our wish to have quick success. Nobody seems to have the patience to progress slowly and steadily towards fulfilling our dreams. This is probably even truer for managers in the corporate sector. Managers want difficult targets to be achieved and they are in a hurry. So, inadvertently difficult goals are set that are never internalized by anyone, even when the goal setting is done through a participative process. This is when projects fail. Even when there are no major failures, the successes are definitely not optimal. I think greatness is achieved never in a hurry but by the slow and steady process of achieving easy goals.

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