I had a good chat with an old friend and ex-colleague, Scott McArthur, today, and one of the subjects that came up was breakthrough performance. He was asking what my thoughts were from a sport psychology perspective – how could he get a group of business people think about ‘personal bests’.
My first response was that elite athletes tend to work in terms of process goals (the building blocks of performance) more than outcome goals (or at least they try to – difficult when you are in the Olympic final). How often do business people get caught in the trap of focusing on, for example, their sales target rather than the things they need to do to hit their target?
That led me to me next response. Generally speaking, elite athletes don’t have targets. They have goals. There’s a difference. Most employees of business organisations have targets or objectives, not goals. The biggest difference? Goals are mine. I own them (or my team owns them). Objectives may be negotiated, but they are largely set by the organisation to ensure that people are focused on the things that they need to meet their objectives. This is a subtle but important difference.
So, what would happen if your organisation stopped using objectives altogether?
Well, I guess some bad things might happen, but so might some good things.
You see, I believe that objectives are better at stopping bad performance than they are at creating great performance. Indeed, I think they might limit them. Isn’t that going against conventional wisdom, that when you want to ‘raise the bar’ you do so with more challenging objectives?
Why objectives help stop bad performance:
- They provide focus for individuals and ensure that they are doing the things they need to do
- They help management keep control and be confident that their ship is heading in the right direction
- (Note that I have not mentioned that they provide motivation. That’s not by accident)
- They narrow our focus, which may mean that we don’t do things that could really add value, or we fail to spot opportunities
- They can actually inhibit important contributors to performance such as creativity and innovation, teamwork (particularly if set badly) and social support