Musings on Strategic Investigation, Performance Improvement, and Rhetoric

Goals Ain't Strivin'

New militia recruit (suffering from overexertion): “Sir, I will not relent.  When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Spenser: “You’re going to have a very hard life my friend.”

Mis-use of goals has given them a type A image, which misses the biggest benefits of using them.  As a reformed striver, I can say from experience that goals help us relax, get more with less wasted effort, and increase our control over our destinies from “none” to “some.”  Unfortunately, most goal setters I see are experiencing the opposite.
Picture a goal setter, and we see someone entirely and selfishly focused on achieving some outcome, but at the same time somehow never fully present.  He straps himself onto the metaphysical treadmill and becomes a relentless focused machine, devoid of humanity, and not very cool.  With dedication to a goal, he may win a trophy or make that big deal, but he’s also inadvertently heading for divorce, regret, burn out or some other form of life crisis.  Undaunted, he keeps on striving.
This archetypal person has missed the point of goals entirely.  Goal-setting is a tool to help us focus our attention.  That’s all.  We can use this tool skilfully, or we can use it to create a proper mess.
Just like with a hammer in the hands of a four year old, using the tool clumsily has damaging consequences.  People make countless stress-inducing, performance-impairing mistakes by mis-using goals.  I'm going to talk about three of them: thinking only about outcomes, letting everything else go to the dogs, and driving ourselves into the ground in our dedication to hitting the goal.
Thinking about an attractive desired outcome, like “I want to be able to run a five minute mile,” can be useful.  The goal stimulates my mind to come up with strategies to get there from where I am now.  But if I just obsess about the outcome, eventually I’ll just be using it for two things: minimising distractions and increasing my capacity to work ever harder.  These are genuine advantages of goals, and they may be all we want in some circumstances; but by themselves they aren’t sustainable or that appealing.  If I don’t have my attention on other important things that goals can give me, like learning or skills practice or experiencing something intensely, I’m depriving myself of growth and I'm not putting my attention on the present, where it counts.
The second stress inducer - letting everything else go to the dogs - is also driven by poor wielding of the goal-setting tool.  The corollary of using a goal to focus my attention on something is that I’m not focused on everything else.  So if I obsess constantly about one or two goals, with no time to review and no time off, everything else will likely go to the dogs, and I may not even notice this downward spiral elsewhere until it’s far too late.
The third stress inducer - driving myself into the ground to hit the goal - is, again, just bad practice.  I may be smart enough to want to set short term goals that are only a small stretch above my current capability.  I may even make a plan to ensure I have time to achieve them.  But I’m rarely prescient or lucky enough to predict how hard the goal should be, accounting for all the random things that happen in the world in the meantime.  Most people are optimistic here and set goals that are only achievable in ideal circumstances, then they don’t review them after their plans have been hit by an unpredictable sidewinder.  Because they’re concentrating on the outcome, they don’t realise how they’re suffering, and one of two things results: they utterly exhaust themselves in order to hit their randomly assigned initial goal; or they utterly exhaust themselves and miss the same random goal.  The exhaustion might be worth it if the goal is meaningful enough, but most short term goals are just a good guess at steps towards the long term goal, so we're exhausting ourselves for something to which we've given a random, temporary importance.
We could look at all these problems and say, “What’s the point?”, get all Bohemian, and abandon goals altogether.  If we do that we’ll not only miss out on all the benefits and pleasure of choosing where we put our attention, but two other things will happen.  First, we’ll drift aimlessly.  This sounds relaxing, and it has its place.  But if we drift all the time, like those people we all know who’ve made weed a way of life, we’ll end up with a watered down, unfulfilled version of the reality we sought to experience.  We might settle for being an also-ran with our business, we might lose a little weight, we might learn a few chords on the guitar, but we’ll never get close to what we’ve dreamt about.  And we won’t just drift.  We’ll be buffeted around by other influences, being a responder to other people’s prompts and requests.  If we don’t set our own sales target or decide which new product we’re going to back, then our bank or our clients will do it for us.
The solution to all this is to use goals well.  First, we make long term goals only for very few things, which we really care about and which are different from today.  Second, we make sure that we've got some prompts to make sure everything else important is covered, especially the things we take for granted, even though it seems absurd to attach prompts to remind us about them.  If my focus of attention is on my business’s sales and I don’t have anything to force me to notice my health or my family, then guess what’s going to suffer.  Third, we plan properly, so we're realistic about what it’s going to take to hit the goal, even in less than ideal circumstances.  Fourth, we create our shorter term goals.  With these, we make sure we're focusing on what’s important in the moment and not only on outcomes: learning goals where we need them; experience goals where we're gathering information; quality goals where time is less important; process goals where we've got a process to test or follow.  These are all things that bring our attention onto what's important right in the moment.  Finally, we pull our heads up regularly, sit in our zen garden, pour ourselves a cup of green tea, and see how things are going.  We're in review mode here, not do mode; so we check whether the goals are still relevant, and either adjust the goal so that it’s just challenging enough to be energising, or change it for something more helpful.
The experience will be far from perfect.  We will likely not achieve as much as quickly as we’d planned, some things will be much less achievable or less rewarding than we first thought, and lots of things will come at us that we didn’t expect.  But we will be the ones with our hands on the tiller of our sailboat in the stormy sea, and we will travel a lot further towards our paradise island than drifting in the wind or paddling to go fast.
But goal-setting by itself is not a guaranteed route to success or satisfaction.  Even if we use it skilfully, it is still just a tool to focus our attention.  You can choose if you wish to use goals to drive yourself harder and feel heroic.  Many do.  I’d rather use them to focus my attention to do a good job of what I care about.  To me this means focusing on fewer things, giving those proper time and attention, enjoying using the goals, and being energised rather than daunted by the challenge they provide.  It rarely means striving.


Good Goal Habits – Moving from Vision to Now

In a previous post I wrote about how goals can help us in almost any endeavour.  But we need to take moment to put together a proper framework for these goals, covering the short, medium and long-term.  If we don't take an hour to do this up front, we're missing a big opportunity.
Distant Goals Are Useful, But Only If We Break Them into Pieces
Wherever people have studied goals of different time-scales, the best results have come from a very particular approach: start with an important, inspiring longer term vision, and break it down into a series of intermediate and short term goals.  
Long-term goals, no matter how inspirational, consistently result in no benefit whatsoever if they aren't combined with near term targets.  Alone, they raise morale, but do nothing for performance or productivity; those Big Hairy Audacious Goals, by themselves, are a Big Hairy Audacious waste of time.  In some studies, long-term goals have even been shown to produce worse performances than simply saying, “Do your best.”  In contrast, long term visions broken down into short-term goals and intermediate evaluation stages are very effective indeed; they consistently make performance better, with proven results from business and sports to military training.
All of us do this breaking-down naturally when faced with big or complex tasks.  When skiing down a mountain, we have an end-goal: to get to the bottom upright and maybe skilfully.  But we just take one section of the mountain at a time, and focus our attention on that.  In business and personal target-setting, we take a long-term aspiration and work back to goals for this year, quarter, month, week, and, for some situations, day and hour.
The benefits of breaking down goals apply even to very short term goals.  In two studies, athletes were asked to run 1600m or 3200m as quickly as possible.  Then they were told to run it again, this time breaking the distance down into 4-8 equal segments, with target times for each segment.  This breaking down increased the speed of all but one of the runners, with a time saving of between 1.1% and 6.5%.  In the 2008 Olympic 1500m final, 1.1% was the difference between the gold medal and eighth place.
The US Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Programme (TOPGUN), uses this approach on missions, and calls it “compartmentalising.”  Leading sports scientists use it with potential Olympic medal winners, and call it “segmenting."
One thing that distinguishes teams and people who are good at making their visions happen is their dedication to this goal-setting process.  They are rigorous and deliberate in setting long-term goals, and breaking them down into short-term components.  They attach at least one goal to every relevant activity.  They break down even short-term performance goals into smaller components.  Finally, they practise constant goal-re-setting, based on feedback and results.
I’ll describe one way to do this below.
Setting a Goal Framework
Before describing how to set a goal framework, I need to make two critical qualifications.  
First, the whole goal setting process should only be used for your most important areas of focus, probably fewer than you'd wish.  Goals are for directing your attention and effort.  That's how they work.  So it’s just as important to have no goals elsewhere.  The most ferociously competitive world class athletes are unbelievably laid back outside their theatre of performance; world class business leaders don’t spend their entire time creating and fulfilling a cottage industry of meaningless targets; everyday people like you and me can achieve an awful lot by resisting the temptation to dilute our attention beyond the two or three things we really care about.  
Second, you need to have goals that you're confident will get you to your end-point, or that you can alter quickly if they don’t.  It’s all too easy to set goals that either don’t move you closer to where you want to go or take you inadvertently in the wrong direction – read the newspaper about centrally-planned government targets for plenty of evidence of this.  Getting this confidence is the subject for a whole new post, which is later in this series.
Given these qualifications, setting up a good goal framework requires at least four timeframes, each of which has a different purpose.
Long Term Goals –Vision Timeframe
Long-term goals don’t by themselves help us improve our lot.  But an exciting, visionary long-term goal has four invaluable benefits.  First, because it’s a long time away, we can target something inspirational.  Inspiration ignites people’s commitment and dedication.  Second, a common long-term goal gives teams a common purpose, helping people align their individual shorter-term goals with each other, and avoid unplanned conflicts.  Third, it gives us a gauge to assess performance and progress, i.e. are the shorter-term goals doing their jobs and getting you where you want to go?  Finally, we can use the long term vision to pull ourselves out of the mud of the day-to-day, and remind ourselves what’s important to us and what’s ultimately irrelevant.
Such a visionary goal needs to be sufficiently far in the future that you can achieve something that would be impossible with today’s capability.  Depending on circumstances, this could be as near as a year and as far away as a decade.  For athletes, a visionary goal could be Olympic qualification; for businesses, becoming the world’s obvious go to provider of a service.  
Medium-Long Term Goals – Target Timeframe
Armed with our inspirational long-term vision, we need a hard performance target against which we can monitor progress.  Where the long-term goal was visionary, intended to inspire commitment to the cause, the corresponding performance target is tangible, measurable and as within our control as possible.
Six-time World Ironman champion Dave Scott’s visionary goal was to win it again in 1989 – exciting but not a target he could use to measure progress.  His performance target was a time of 8 hours 10 minutes (25 minutes faster than last time he won it) – a very tangible target indeed.  He missed his target by 15 seconds and came second, by a whisker, in the greatest Ironman race ever.
Intermediate Goals – Progression Timeframe
Adding intermediate targets makes the long term target much more achievable, and this is again supported by overwhelming evidence.  Targets are more immediate, which raises their priority and focuses our attention on them.  Our ability to hit them tells us whether our current effort and approach is getting us to the longer term goal – or if we need to try harder or find another approach.  The very presence of an intermediate goal, like a weigh in at a diet club, prompts us to be consistent in good habits we want to generate but are tempted to put off.
These are the good reasons why sales managers use frequent pipeline reviews as intermediate targets, and why athletes have monthly performance progress goals before the competition season.
Immediate Goals – Performance Timeframe
The goal framework then cascades all the way back to the performance itself.  Evidence overwhelmingly supports the benefits of using well-set goals for performance and practice, in fields ranging from negotiations to cycling ergometer trials.  If you or I go into any arena – a meeting, sales pitch, or practice session - with a well-set goal, we will perform better against it than if we simply try to do our best.
Putting this all together, we have a long-term goal that lights our fire, converted into something tangible that we can target, cascaded back through intermediate steps - this year, this quarter, this month, and week (even day and hour for some activities) - to our very next performance or practice.  
Top performers, and people who use goals well, don’t just adhere mindlessly to the pre-set framework, stressing out when they’re miles behind plan, or coasting and sandbagging if they're ahead.  They constantly reset targets, upwards or downwards, based on performances and progress to date.  The Radioshack cycling team realised part way through 2009’s Tour de France that they wouldn’t win their target yellow jersey, so they reset their target onto the prize for fastest team, which they won.  The principle is the same for anyone from salesmen to rugby teams – if you’re well behind your goal, it’s worth recalibrating to something more achievable; if you’re well ahead, you may want to up it to something that's a pleasant challenge.

This investment in a well-designed goal-setting framework seems pretty large, and it does take a little time.  But it’s an investment that, done rigorously, pays for itself many times over.  It saves lots of distraction and wasted effort.  Most importantly it frees us to focus all of our attention where it counts: on doing a fine job of the task at hand.

Botterill, 1977.  Goal-setting and Performance on an Endurance Task.
House, 1973.  Performance Expectancies and Affect Associated with Outcomes as a Function of Time Perspective.
Locke & Latham, 2002.  Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal-Setting and Task Motivation.
Umstot, Bell & Mitchell, 1976.  Effects of Job Enrichment and Task Goals on Satisfaction and Productivity.
Rushall, 1996.  Some determinants in human competitive performances: A psychological perspective.


Planning is a Good Thing, Even for Free Spirits

Planning Helps Everyone, But Mainly Those Who Think They Don’t Need It
For many of us, planning looks like a straight jacket that hampers our creativity.  We assume that creative people like entrepreneurs are better off without such bureaucracy and should just follow their instincts and test things using trial and error.  As a romantic wannabe free spirit, I’d love to believe this story.  But I’m a sucker for evidence and I can’t get away from the facts: planning is really valuable when it’s done well, ironically most of all for those creative free spirits.
Properly managed studies of the benefits and drawbacks of planning come down firmly on planning’s side. It makes us better at reaching our desired state, more reliably, more quickly, with less effort, and with less wasted time in inevitable blind alleys.  It helps us deal with distractions, recognise problems early, and refocus if we’re going off course.  Just as having a well set goal makes it more likely we’ll achieve what we desire, having a well designed plan makes it even more likely once the goal is in place.
Sadly, we see planning most often where it’s needed least and can even be damaging: large companies in steady state, planning more of the same; successful athletes looking at how to improve by doing more or harder sessions; and administrators misusing it to centralise decisions.   And of course we see planning least often where it’s needed most: small companies working out how to grow; frustrated people working out how to change instilled behaviour to get very different results, like dieters and unsuccessful athletes; and talented people who want more power over their own destinies.  We need planning most when, like our entrepreneur, we’re discovering and breaking new ground.  When we’re just doing more of the same, we’re really repeating last year’s plan with higher targets.
There are, of course, downsides to planning if we don’t go in with our eyes open.  For example, we can end up head-down-arse-in-the-air focused in task completion and not recognise when it starts being a bad idea.  But that is just bad planning and bad goal-setting; it’s possible to wield any tool badly, and wielding it well can mitigate those problems.
Where Planning Fits, What Is & What It Isn’t
Let me describe what I mean by planning.
First, I assume you’ve got a goal, where you want to reach by when, which is tangible enough that you’ll recognise it when you reach it.  If it’s a long term goal, you need to be passionate about it or you’ll be uncommitted, poor-performing and probably a little bitter.  If it’s a short term goal, you just need to be clear what it is: sometimes we need to do tedious things as part of the big picture.  If you haven’t got a goal, you need one before you start on a plan.
If the goal is where you want to get, the plan is how you’re intending to get there.  This includes all the things that planning texts cover: the order of events, how long each thing takes, what resources you need, what capabilities you need to have built or bought by when, who has responsibility for what, what is and is not on the critical path, check point goals to make sure you’re on track, etc, etc.  You know all these things already, but you may not do them.
Let me describe what a plan isn’t; and this isn’t in all the planning texts.  It isn’t a detailed, linear path from where we are now to where we want to arrive, with no allowance for change or deviation.  The plan is only as detailed as it needs to be to get us to the first check point, and no more detailed.  We replan or review the goal after hitting or missing each check point.  And if there’s any material uncertainty, as there is for most things, the plan needs to include what academics call an “if-then.”  This last point deserves an article in itself, which I’ll write in due course.
Planning Helps Complex Activities
You might think the benefits of planning in complex environments, with multiple people, are painfully obvious.  You wouldn’t make a ten man trek to the South Pole without a plan.  But people in complex environments, treading less well-charted territory, like small business owners, resist it like a ball and chain, preferring trial and error and their mystical instincts.
The top small business researchers, Delmar & Shane, tested how planing helped or hindered entrepreneurs.  They studied 223 start ups for 5 years to see if planning was a good idea.  In their results, the firms using planning developed new products more quickly, developed their operations more completely, and had less chance of failure than those that didn’t.  In fact, planning was the single biggest factor the authors could identify, in the business’s control, that determined whether the business succeeded or failed.  They gave three reasons for this.  First, planning speeds up decisions, because it allows people to anticipate potential problems and identify missing information more quickly than trial and error: drawing blueprints for a house before starting to build it, versus just starting then realising you need to pull the floor up to put the gas pipes in.  Second, planning helps people to schedule resources, communicate this, and work out where the bottlenecks are, with the added bonus it makes them better at estimating how long things will take; so there is much less wasted time and fewer delays.  Third, planning enables people to develop specific steps to achieve their goals, which deters distractions and gets people to their goals more quickly.  More on this last point later.
Planning Even Helps Really Simple Activities
Planning even helps the simplest activities that only involve one person.  The evidence for this is also very solid, even for people who don’t do it naturally and for the most uninspiring goals.  The most compelling example I’ve seen in research is of two groups of heroin addicts suffering withdrawal, who were given an objective of writing a CV by the end of the day.  All had equal, measured commitment to the goal.  One group had a relevant plan (“I will write the CV at noon”) and the majority completed it by the end of the day.  The other group had equal commitment but no measured plan, and not one of them completed the CV.
Researchers have got underneath how planning helps, even in these situations with minimal complexity, by looking at how the brain works.  FMRI scans of brains show that planning actually stimulates a different part of the brain than goal setting.  By planning, you’re accessing a more suitable part of your brain, designed for action, which finds completing tasks easier and is better at them.
This explains why a well-formed plan is an even better indicator of whether someone will complete something than how committed they are to the end-goal.
Planning Addresses the Big Hurdles to Goal Achievement
Goals researchers list four major constraints to achieving goals: not getting started, not staying on track, calling a halt, and overextending oneself.  Planning addresses all four.
How planning helps getting started is self-evident; without planning, we usually get started, like our heroin addicts, too late or never.  Planning helps us stay on track by forcing our minds to think through how realistic something is and what it takes; and working to that plan helps us avoid tempting distractions that might pull us off track.  Calling a halt becomes tempting when our short term goal isn’t inspiring, and more attractive tasks start to appeal.  But once we’ve have a plan, with our brain in implementation mode, we are much more stimulated by plan completion than the nature of the goal.  For most of us, the fourth area, not overextending ourselves, is probably planning’s biggest benefit.  When we plan we see the reality of time and resources needed versus what’s available, we’re much less likely to take on additional tasks that aren’t related to our goal.  Finally, and again this is verified by research, it’s mentally much less taxing to implement a pre-planned activity, than to constantly flit between doing and thinking of the end state.
A Simple Way to Combine Planning and Goal Setting
There’s a simple way to combine goal setting and planning to really good effect, which has been tested and proven in some solid studies, including studies of notoriously difficult exercise and diet goals.  In these studies, it gives better results than goal setting alone or planning alone.  The method is called mental contrasting with implementation intentions, or MCII.
In MCII, we start with our desired outcome and then, very deliberately, contrast it with the reality of our current state.  This Mental Contrasting stimulates much more realistic and higher quality planning of how we can get there from here than simply thinking of our desired end-state and ignoring the state we’re starting from.  Only once we’ve established this Mental Contrast do we form our Implementation Intentions.
The business and life coaching fraternity have for years used a layman’s equivalent of MCII, using the much snappier acronym of “GROW,” and this captures the essence of MCII in a usable form.  The steps of GROW are to clarify the Goal, review current Reality, look at the Obstacles and consider a series of Options to get from here to the goal, and plan by thinking about the Way forward (or Who, Where and When).  It’s a little simplistic, but it’s memorable and good for many situations.  If you want more than a paragraph on GROW, there are dozens of articles and books on it; it’s even got its own Wikipedia entry.
Downsides of Planning
Of course, planning has its downsides, particularly if it isn’t done well.  In the same way that goals focus the attention on achieving one thing at the expense of less valuable things, planning focuses the attention on getting one thing achieved, even after achieving it becomes a bad idea.  This is why a good plan needs breaks to check where we’re going, ponder and readjust.  Unlike Napoelon on his march on Moscow, we need to review and reorientate.  We can question Napoleon’s goal, but even if the goal had been wise, invading Russia definitely needed a plan.  A good plan might have thrown up that the Russian winter would be an issue.  Becoming a slave to the (bad) plan once typhus and then winter started setting in was not very wise at all.  Planning and goal setting aren’t the problem; bad planning and goal setting are.
So Are You Going to Start Some Proper Planning Then?
I guess the decision about whether to plan properly ultimately comes down to an emotional choice.  Do you want to resist the perceived planning straight jacket, and carry on being a free spirit who can’t be tied down?  Or would you rather spend some time thinking ahead, and so achieve what you’re passionate about with less wasted effort, fewer false starts and abandoned projects, and as a result be more of a master of your own destiny?   Ironically, I think the second path is a freer one. 

Brandstatter, V., Lengfelder, A., & Gollwitzer, P.M. (2001).  Implementation intentions and efficient action initiation, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 946-960
Delmar, F. & Shane, S. (2003).  Does Business Planning Facilitate the Development of New Ventures, Strategic Management Journal, 24, 1165-1185
Gollwitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. .  Planning Promotes Goal Striving.  Handbook of Self-regulation.  Guildford Press, 2011.  pp 162-185


Performance Goals – Great If You Use Them Wisely


Goals are as Valuable as the Care You Put Into Them

Goals can be powerful things.  When used well, they can produce startling increases in performance; used badly, they can damage and destroy; used half-heartedly, they typically have hardly any effect at all.

The evidence of the benefits of well-set goals is hard to ignore.  Studies comparing goal-users against those with no goals or “do your best” instructions show consistently better performance by the goal users.  This is true for individuals, teams, and enterprises.  Studies of athletes regularly show improvements of 50-100% in the best responders.  Locke’s original landmark review of goal-setting studies in enterprises showed that 90% enjoyed material performance improvement from using goals.  The same review identified an average 40% performance improvement when goals were combined with monetary incentives.

The disastrous effects of badly-set goals are also hard to ignore.  Ordonez et al’s “Goals Gone Wild” gives an attention-grabbing selection of negative case examples of gaming, conflict, irresponsibility, and issue blindness from poor goal-setting.  These include Sears’ auto repair sales goals, which resulted in company-wide behaviour of overcharging and making unnecessary repairs.  The paper also includes the inevitable Enron example of sales targets that ignored profitability measures, with results that we all know.

Goals applied half-heartedly are just a waste of time.  Long-term goals have no performance enhancing effect if not combined with more immediate goals.  Goals, of any time frame, have no material performance-enhancing effect if not combined with feedback on results.

In a nutshell, the effort and thought you put into goals is rewarded in proportion.

How Goals Work

A major effect of goals on the mind is to focus the attention, something I’ve talked about before (here) as being critical to performance improvement.  Done well, goals help you direct your attention to what’s important, at the expense of what’s unimportant.

Studies that record multiple aspects of performance consistently show improvement in the aspects with goals, and little or none for areas where no goals are set.  This is as true in day-to-day life as in corporates: one study of collegiate rugby players showed between 26% and 118% improvement in pre-selected goal tasks over a season with negligible improvement in non-selected tasks.

Done badly, goals direct your attention, possibly inadvertently, onto damaging or unproductive work, which Goals Gone Wild illustrates at length.  

Without goals, you don’t just flounder; but you are more likely to get drawn into a range of nice-to-haves and ought-to-dos, with no prompt to choose how to prioritise your limited time, money and energy.

A second effect of goals on the mind is mobilising increased effort and persistence.  In observed field experiments, when people are allowed to control time, they prolong effort to hit goals.  When faced with tight deadlines, they increase work pace.  

Hard goals produce higher effort even than people’s self-directed attempts to work as hard as they possibly can.  In a study of cyclists, participants given hard goals actually performed at higher levels than those asked to cycle until they literally couldn’t pedal any more.

A third observed effect of well-set goals is to stimulate use of new or more productive strategies: prompting the mind to work smarter as well as harder.  This is a characteristic of planning, which I’ll cover in a separate set of future posts.

My favourite characterisation of the extremes to which focused attention and persistence exhibit themselves in pursuing a critical goal, and how ingenious strategies become, is from the documentary March of Penguins.  Natural world examples aren’t for everyone, so I’ve summarised this separately here.

Good Goal Habits

Given the enormous potential benefits involved, it’s worth investing some time to set and use goals well, taking on board the lessons that enterprises, sportspeople, scientists and others have learned and captured over the years.  The commonly-espoused SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Agreed, Relevant/Realistic, Time-based) goal-setting protocol is a good start; but it misses some critical steps, without which you’re wasting your time.

I’ll therefore use the next series of posts to lay out some Good Goal Habits, which summarise much of the accumulated knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.

Areas I’ll cover include: whether and how to use longer-term and shorter-term goals; how difficult should goals be; whether to use outcome goals or process goals; where to use multiple goals, and how to manage them; how explicit goals should be; the role of feedback and evaluation; the importance of goal commitment, and how to increase it; who to include in goal-setting; special characteristics of group and visionary goals; and characteristics of a top goal-setting and goal-hitting environment.

Next post, starting with the big picture: using long- and short-term goals together for an excellent goal structure.


Locke & Latham, 2002.  Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal-Setting & Task Motivation
Ordonez et al., 2009.  Goals Gone Wild
Locke & Latham, 2009. Has Goal Setting Gone Wild, or Have Its Attackers Abandoned Good Scholarship?
Mellalieu et al., 2006.  The Effects of Goal Setting on Rugby Performance
Dimitrova, 1970. Dependence of Voluntary Effort Upon the Magnitude of the Goal and the Way it is Set in Sportsmen
Botterill, 1977. Goal-setting and Performance on an Endurance Task

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Penguins & Performance

How Goals Work (Briefly)

This post is an add-on to my introductory post [here], which was about the consistently major benefits of well-managed goals, and about how goals work.  Well-set difficult goals work because they (1) focus attention onto what’s important and away from everything else, (2) motivate greater effort and persistence than simply doing your best, and (3) stimulate use of better strategies to reach them.

These characteristics are personified in the extreme by the stars of the documentary “March of the Penguins”.

A Difficult, Important Goal – Keep the Chick Alive

Emperor Penguins choose a breeding ground on ice that is solid year round.  At the beginning of the Antarctic summer, the breeding ground is only a few hundred meters away from the open water where the penguins can feed. By the end of summer, the breeding ground is over 60 miles away from the nearest open water, and gets further away every month.

The female lays a single egg each breeding season, and the goal is to keep the chick alive for eight months in one of the most hostile environments on earth, miles from food sources, until it can fend for itself.

Focused Attention – Chick First; Food and Everything Else Second

The males and females are together on the breeding ground for two months after mating until the eggs are laid.  If the egg is to survive, it needs to stay warm.  So after the female lays the egg, she transfers it to the feet of the waiting male, minimising exposure to the intense cold that would kill the developing embryo.  The male tends to the egg while the female returns to the sea, now even farther away, both in order to feed herself and to obtain extra food for feeding her chick.  For an additional two months, while the female make the return trip to the sea, the males huddle together to stay warm enough to incubate their eggs.

(Just Unbelievable) Persistence

The females have not eaten in two months by the time they leave the hatching area, and have lost a third of their body weight. They then need to travel 50 miles to reach the open ocean.  The males meanwhile endure temperatures approaching −62 °C (−80 °F), with falling snow their only source of water. By the time the females return, the males have lost half their weight and have not eaten for four months.

When mother penguins come back and feed their young, the male penguins take their turn to go to the sea, now 70 miles away, to feed themselves. 

The parents continue this shuttling back and forth to the sea for an additional four months, until finally the parents can leave the chicks to fend for themselves.

Ingenious Strategies to Survive and Keep the Chick Alive

The Emperor penguins have devised a multitude of ingenious strategies to keep the chick alive in this crazily hostile situation.  In addition to the female-male-female tag game and the keep-warm huddle, memorable strategies include the males taking turns on the cold outside of the huddle and, in desperate near-starvation circumstances, feeding eleventh-hour nourishment direct from the father-penguins' throat sacs.

Here’s my point in this example.  If an important goal can stimulate this phenomenal focused attention, persistence and ingenuity in a penguin, I would hope that goals can be helpful for us too.

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