Why goal setting can be dangerous

Why goal setting can be dangerous

Meeting your targets is seen as a must-do – but what is the drawback?

By Robyn Eversole

  • The problem: The pressure to set goals and targets can send our change efforts off in the wrong direction.
  • Why it matters: When we focus on our own goals alone, we miss opportunities to collaborate and co-create solutions with others.
  • The solution: Create space in your agenda to listen and learn from others, as the best outcomes come from relationships.

I tried archery once. I picked up the bow, the arrow, and explored their shape and weight. I experimented with a few ways to hold them. I was slow, unpolished, but once I had grasped the equipment, I lifted my eyes to the bright circles on the board by the paddock. I felt the potential in the spring of the bow and the string, and I let the arrow fly to the bullseye.

Perfect shot. First time.

“That’s fantastic,” my husband said. “You hit the target.”

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I was proud of myself. Suddenly, I felt in control. I drew another arrow, this time with confidence. I placed my hands the same way, drew the arrow the same way, fixed my stare on the target, and missed the board entirely. Nearly hit the cat.

“Don’t worry,” my husband said. “Just focus on the target.”

But then I missed that target, every time after. And I think about that feeling every time someone tells me to set a target in my professional work.

“I think this “luck” is actually something quite different: an awareness we have when we allow ourselves to be beginners; when we become an attentive part of a change process, rather than experts taking charge of it.”

The importance of targets

Set clear targets, we are told over and over as professionals. Focus on your target.

I have had a lot of achievements in my professional life. But at the risk of being provocative, not one of them was achieved by focusing on a target.

I work with people and organisations to help them create social change. The successes and impacts in this work have been achieved by going into an unfamiliar situation and being open to grasping it, willing to learn without assuming what the target should be.

Why did the first archery shot succeed, and the subsequent ones fail? This is very common; so common that culturally, we have a name for it: we call it “beginner’s luck”. But I think this “luck” is actually something quite different: an awareness we have when we allow ourselves to be beginners; when we become an attentive part of a change process, rather than experts taking charge of it.

Honesty is the best policy

If I am to be honest with you, my most successful projects are not ones that I intentionally set out to create. They were not in my list of goals for the year. These projects that came about almost “accidentally” or “serendipitously” because of conversations I had, people I met, and things that landed on my desk. These sparked my awareness of problems, latent resources, and possibilities, and started me on a journey to create change.

Each time, when I started, I was in no position to set a SMART target. First, I had to grasp what was actually happening. I had to watch, listen, and ask questions, even if they made me look vulnerable and less expert than expected. Only then could I work out what people and resources I needed to bring together to make change.

To be brutally honest, more often than not I was unclear at the start exactly what change I was trying to create. The target was not set by me: the end goal evolved in tune with the situation around me, a dialogue with many voices. My task was not to pre-define the outcome. It was to link together people, resources, ideas, and perspectives, and harmonise them to make a useful outcome happen.

“Public servants don’t deliver value; development experts don’t create development outcomes. Outcomes are negotiated, co-created with stakeholders. Outcomes come from relationships.”

Making a real difference

Effective change processes are, I have found, ultimately relational. The anthropologist Rosalind Eyben has written about this relationality in the context of international aid and development work. More recently, public sector management scholars such as Stephen Osborne have theorised that public services co-create value with stakeholders. These perspectives are provocative: public servants don’t deliver value; development experts don’t create development outcomes. Outcomes are negotiated, co-created with stakeholders. Outcomes come from relationships.

Because of this, focusing our work on targets can be dangerous. It assumes that we know what the outcome will be from the start, and that we are capable of controlling every factor or person that might influence it. Focusing on a pre-set target blocks our awareness of other perspectives, agendas, limitations, and possibilities. It prevents us from understanding the landscape as we take aim.

When I shot that successful first arrow, my process was not about the target. It was about the arrow, the bow, and the tactile learning of their relationship to my hand, the air, wind, red circle, tensions, potential, and how they all might work together. When I shot the second and subsequent arrows: the process was all about me: whether or not I could hit the target.

A professional environment that exhorts us to set and deliver on targets perpetuates a myth that making things better is ultimately about us: something we control. In this, we will almost inevitably fail, misjudge, offend, or miss the point: our arrow will fly slant. The alternative is to approach our work as a process, in which we work with others to name and create the futures we want.

*This post is written by Professor Robyn Eversole, Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology, Australia.

*This article first appeared on the apolitical.co website

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