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Goal Setting Can Limit Our Flexibility and Learning

By: Jim Clemmer

Jim Clemmer is an international keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, and president of The CLEMMER Group, a North American network of organization, team, and personal improvement consultants based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. His other bestsellers include Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance, and his most recent book, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. His web site is http://www.clemmer.net/


"People seldom hit what they do not aim at."
   — Henry David Thoreau, 19th century American naturalist, poet, and essayist
Goals are precise and measurable objectives with exact time frames and targets. Goals are short-term steps toward our long-term vision. Goals are specific points along our journey to higher performance. They could be organization or team improvement objectives such as targets for cycle time, customer satisfaction, error or defect rates, new products or services, costs, or revenues. Personal goals could include targets such as income level or financial position, new home, car or other item, an academic or technical qualification, business we want to start, or position we want to reach.

Clear and powerful goals set priorities. They narrow the wide field of options and choices to those few activities that leverage our limited time and attention. They keep us focused on finding the shortest, most direct route to our destination. That means goals point out where not to go and what not to do as much as where we should go and what we should do. So clear goals lead to faster, clearer decisions, which move us more quickly toward our dreams.

Long-term goal setting has always been vaguely unsatisfying for me. I lean more naturally toward visioning. Part of the reason I am uncomfortable with long-term goal setting is because goals are shallow. Goals define what you want to have, not what you want to become. They are a means, not an end.

Another reason goal setting has been less satisfying is because I've never been very good at it. Most of the time frames on my projections, forecasts, and predictions are wrong. I suppose I should ask for a refund on my cloudy crystal ball. But through persistence and staying true to my course, I've eventually reached and then reset many of my visions. I've generally got to where I wanted to go and became the person I wanted to become. But it was always through a different route than I first expected to take. I guess that's called learning?

So there's the paradox of goals. I believe in personal, team, and organization goal setting. I continue to set goals. And I continue to help leaders set goals and objectives for themselves, their teams, and their organization. Goals are targets that help us immensely in moving from a general vision to a specific set of priorities and actions.

We need to take them seriously — but not too seriously. There are many reasons that we may not reach our short-term goals. Some of them are good — a better, unforeseen route came into view, we learned that a narrow focus on that goal would mean losing someone or something else we care about, or we realized we had to take time out to strengthen our capability before stretching for that goal. Other reasons for missing our goals are bad — we didn't follow through and persist, we failed to change our habits or develop new skills, we lost control of our time and priorities, or we became distracted and wandered off track.

We should set goals and establish priorities. They should be as specific and measurable as we can make them. But with a longer-term Focus and Context (vision, values, and purpose), we need to see goals as vital learning points. Disciplined and effective goal setting means that at the end of the time frame we’ve set with every goal, we pause long enough to understand why we’ve hit or missed that goal.

Was it our action or some larger wave we happened to catch that carried us there? Could we repeat the success if faced the same set of circumstances again? If we missed a goal, why was that? Was it unrealistic? Did conditions change that pushed the goal away from us? Could we have done something better to reach the goal?

Since our goal is part of a larger Focus and Context, we now reset it and establish new priorities. With a new goal in sight, we now set out for this next learning point toward fulfilling our bigger vision, values, and purpose.

© Copyright 2001 The CLEMMER Group

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