Yang: Goal, Plan, Action, Result…

Los Alamos

Goal, Plan, Action, Result – Which Should Come First?

Often, we offer “set your goal” as encouragement to each other. Certainly, reaching goals, especially big and important ones, make us feel elated. But what’s more fascinating: How do people deal with failing to reach a particular goal? And, how do people deal with the aftermath, the let down, of achieving “that big goal”?

Recently, I have come across two seemingly contradictory articles. In one, entrepreneur James Clear, channeled through James Haden’s written words (link), advises people not to get so hung up on goals; instead, to concentrate more efforts on the “system” with which to reach those goals.  In the other, Travis Bradbury (link), co-author of one of the popular books on “Emotional Intelligence 2.0,” wrote, “researchers found that success in the face of failure comes from focusing on results (what you hope to achieve).” In other words, focusing on goals helps overcome failure. 

I gave myself away when I said, “seemingly contradictory.” So, let me explain.

Mr. Clear’s position on goals, in a nutshell, stresses the process/system by which a person/team/organization reaches those goals. He would say, “By all means have a goal, but don’t be obsessed with it.” In his view, the “system/process,” the actual doing and practice, is the key. An entrepreneur may set a goal of growing business volume by a certain amount during the first year, but she has to have a system, a set of procedures, in place before she can bring in sales.

A high school science team may have the state championship as a goal; the teammates still have to study and practice in order to reach that goal. However, if a person fails to reach a goal – perhaps publishing a book – then what? Would the person stop writing? Therein lies the crux of what drives a person into action – doing what he really loves doing. In the pursuit of bettering ourselves, goals are really secondary.

How would such an approach align or clash with Mr. Bradbury’s “focusing on results” to overcome potential failures during the journey? Bradbury cited Thomas Edison and J. K. Rowling as examples. Edison was one of the rare persons possessing both scientific talent and entrepreneurial know-how. While he knew his science and the markets for those potential products, it was his devotion to doing/practicing that lead him to success, overcoming thousands of failures along the way. 

Similarly, Rowling didn’t set out to write a “popular” series; she “simply” had stories to tell. Still, she went through a dozen rejections before finding a publisher who was willing to print 1,000 copies, out of which 500 were distributed to libraries. It was her determination to keep on writing – doing and practicing – and finding the publisher that got Harry Potter published, albeit tepidly at first.  The popularity of the series came later. 

I contend that regardless of the goals in Edison’s or Rowling’s private minds, it was their passion and commitment to their “system/process,” or what I call “assets,” that lead to their respective successes.

The potential downside of having a specific goal is: What happens after you reach it? Some lose sight of what to do next; some come up with their next goals, and others eventually just keep on doing what they enjoy anyway. 

I am not against setting goals; I am however weary of making reaching these goals a binding force onto oneself. Yet, if we set vague goals as a guidepost, we are likely to allow goals to evolve and give ourselves flexibility to develop our skills and strengths as we keep doing. 

As individuals, it is relatively easy for us to negotiate with ourselves in changing goals or changing directions to reach goals. It’s a different dynamic for organizations. Goals are important in the organizational context. People need to have a sense of where their groups or organizations are heading. The challenge for managers is to know how to use goals to guide their direct reports, and to know when to modify goals. For instance, it’s one thing to expect your sale force to bring in X amount of sales, but it’s another to insist on meeting this expectation of X in the face of unexpected economic downturns. 

Within an organization, the more critical issue in goal-setting concerns the organization’s reaction, i.e. management’s reaction, to failures. And this is where Mr. Bradbury’s article really focuses. 

The most important step, the first one, to deal with a failure is to “break the bad news yourself.” Don’t hide, and don’t wait till others discover your failure. If you hide your mistakes – which people find out anyway — you’d have two failures on your hand. Having faced your failure, explain yourself clearly without making excuses. “I let myself caught up in my work and missed informing others what comes next” is much more responsible than “others should know what they need to do; I don’t have to remind people.” 

Next, develop a plan to fix mistakes while being cognizant about how to prevent further mistakes. Again, this is both being responsible and taking the initiative. Of course, it’s always possible that your manager is the small-minded type who may ding you for the mistake in your next performance evaluation. However, the consequences of not owing up and/or fixing failures is likely to lower your evaluation even further. If you were lucky enough to have a “wise” manager, she may appreciate you more for your honesty and ability to learn, and for the confidence that she can count on you in the future. 

In both the organizational context and personal endeavors, the real challenge of setting goals is less about the specific goals and more about how to keep our enthusiasm alive, especially in the face of failures. Ultimately, though, whatever works for you would be just fine. 

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.