As a coach, I know very well how important goal-setting is. Also, as a coach, I know that goals aren't all that they're often cracked up to be. As critical a competency as goal-setting is, if misused, sometimes it can have some very unfortunate consequences. I want to take some time in this article to spell out some of the theoretical underpinnings of goal-setting: what it is (and isn't) and how it can be used (or misused).

When we consider what goals are and how to use them, I think it's important to start with an awareness of the context in which goals and goal-setting operates. Goal-setting is one of the elements of project management. Although I'm sure that there are many folks out there who could explain project management better than I, nonetheless, my background in ISO and QS quality systems and my experience designing, operating, and evaluating projects and their components does give me a certain valuable perspective.

'Projects' are the way people systematize their activities. Even the simplest project plan should be able to answer all your questions about an activity (or task). The 'product' tells you what kind of output you ought to expect from the project. A product is the result of a process that, in turn, is governed by a set of procedures that determine how the process ought to function. All but the simplest activities (processes) are made up of a series of tasks that need to be completed according to a determined protocol in order for the process to be successful (which means: to produce the product specified). Each of these tasks has an outcome or goal that, when properly controlled and systematized, will result in the desired product. These concepts should, by now, to most of us, be fairly obvious.

Most of us are also familiar with the idea of SMART goals that came out of Harvard Business School in the 1920's. Although there are a number of different translations for the acronym 'SMART', one of the most frequently used is: "Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound (Timely)." Goals give people the specifications for successful completion of their tasks. They answer the 'who?' 'what?' 'where?' 'when?' and 'how much?' questions. The answers to these questions form the parameters within which people need a task to be accomplished. Procedures are the guidelines that people put in place to gain some assurance that the parameters defined in the goal will be met.

Once an overall goal or objective has been established for a project, the next responsibility of a good project manager will be to break down the main activity (and its goal) into component tasks, each with its own specific goals. This breakdown process continues until every task is of a manageable size and each goal is truly 'achievable.'

On a very hot summer afternoon decades ago, four family members from Coleman, Texas (a man, his wife, and his wife's mother and father) were going to Abilene, 53 miles away, for dinner. We could say that this was their project. The overall goal of this project was to dine in Abilene and return home safely before Mom got too tired. The goal was reasonably SMART. It was specific (they were going to a diner in Abilene and returning). It was measurable (everybody knew that Mom's endurance level was about 4 hours, max). It was achievable (they had the time, the car, the gas and the money). It was relevant (they all wanted to eat). And, it was time-bound (so long as they started out before 5:00, they'd be back before 9:00).

Coleman - AbileneSo the man left his game of dominoes and went inside to get changed. His wife straightened up the porch and the kitchen, closed up the doors and windows (it was a scorcher), and took her father and mother back to their room to help them get ready.

As soon as he had washed and changed, the man went out to the car to make sure they had enough gas (they did), and he dug through the glove box until he located the map. The process required that they take Highway 64 north until it met highway 83 (where they'd take a right turn), and then straight on into Abilene. Regardless of how successful this little clan was in achieving their goal of getting to Abilene, having dinner, and returning before Granny's get-up-and-go gave out, they'd certainly done a good job with their goal-setting. You might think that they had been successful.

The story I just narrated wasn't chosen haphazardly. In fact, it's a very famous story that you may even have recognized. I chose it specifically to illustrate the serious (and sometimes fatal) flaw in the way people set goals. The story continues . . .

The trip to Abilene was long, hot, dusty and miserable. The diner was unpleasant and the food was really very poor. The drive back was no better than the drive up, only this time everyone was tired and thoroughly uncomfortable. The four of them arrived home exhausted.

Here's how Jerry B. Harvey, the author of this story, concludes it like this:

One of them dishonestly says, "It was a great trip, wasn't it?" The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, "I wasn't delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you." The wife says, "I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that." The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

For those of you who've heard the story before, you'll recognize it as the famous Abilene Paradox. It's the story of a set of successfully-completed goals leading to an entirely unwanted conclusion. It's the result of a kind of tunnel vision that focuses your attention exclusively on the problem to be solved or the result to be produced without regard to whether or not these processes, procedures, tasks and goals make any sense. You can be exceptionally skilled at goal-setting and even have copious documentation from studies that prove that your goals are SMART, and still have your project result in failure just because you neglected to ask one little question: Why?

How often do people ask, "Does this pass the reasonability test?" Look around. It won't take you long to find folks very busy pursuing individual goals that are totally at odds with their general welfare. Look again, and you'll see people doing things that evidently fail the reasonability test; and yet they're claiming that they're actually doing good because they're following established procedures. You must admit that it's quite a remarkable thing that the global financial meltdown we're currently experiencing could be considered one gigantic trip to Abilene!

What's the remedy for this goal-setting fallacy? Our projects (all of them) require a two-pronged approach to intelligent goal-setting: 1) clear discernment of purpose; and 2) goal-alignment. Certainly, no one of us could ever pretend to comprehend our Universal Purpose: our discernment just isn't powerful enough to accomplish that. But, we can ask 'Why?' Why do we want to produce the product our project has been designed for? 'Expediency',' 'tradition', or 'authority' cannot simply be accepted at face value as excuses for pursuing unreasonable goals. We can no longer shirk our responsibility for exercising our critical discernment. We're not "just following orders."

That takes us to our second point: goal-alignment. In our goal-setting, we must never claim that we 'had no choice in the matter.' You always have a choice. Think about world history over the last century. Because Gandhi exercised his choice of non-violent non-cooperation, India is a free, sovereign state today. Because the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. adopted Gandhi's decision-making process, there's an African-American in the White House today. If you're not able to align the goals of your project with the higher purpose that your discernment shows you, you have the choice — no, you have the duty — to abandon that goal.

Although I've painted this reality in global terms, generally speaking your choices will seldom be that dramatic, nor will they have such dramatic consequences. Yet, think of it: if each time you were engaged in setting a goal for one of your projects, you were to ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?" how many trips to Abilene might you spare yourself? And, isn't that reason enough?

Author's Bio: 

H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC grew up in an entrepreneurial family and has been an entrepreneur for most of his life. He is the author of The Frazzled Entrepreneur's Guide to Having It All. Les is a certified Franklin Covey coach and a certified Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Effectiveness coach. He has Masters Degrees in philosophy and theology from the University of Ottawa. His experience includes ten years in the ministry and over fifteen years in corporate management. His expertise as an innovator and change strategist has enabled him to develop a program that allows his clients to effect deep and lasting change in their personal and professional lives.