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Setting the Goals Right

By Ludvig Brisby Jeppsson
Business Columnist

Goals. Visions. Mission. Objectives. Companies formulate statements and communicate big fancy words both internally and to the outside world. Unarguably there seems to be no question whether setting goals is the way to go.

But it has not always been this way. Not until the introduction of scientific management in the beginning of the 20th century—much due to growing industries and war planning—was the idea of setting goals introduced. Industrial pshygologist Celic Alec Mace is said to be the first to study goal setting in 1935. His foundings included that a paycheck wasn’t necessarily the dominant work initiative, and that a will to work could be created under certain circumstances.

Google's Ngram Viewer. Search word: Goals
Google’s Ngram Viewer. Search word: Goals

Research continued and during the late ‘60s former professor of university of Maryland, Edvin A. Locke came to the conclusion that ambitious and specific goals generates a higher output, at least if the goal is aligned with the individual’s goals and intentions.

That was really the first step towards the famous SMART-goals model presented by George T. Doran in 1982, where SMART is an abbreviation for the qualities a goal should have: Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time-Related.

These conclusions may sound obvious to us today but it was different in the past. Using the great Google tool Ngram Viewer, you can look up how often a word appears in literature over the years and get a sense of what topics and areas humanity is writing about. Looking at “goals,” the usage has increased widely over the last century.

In todays society, what was initially research focused on increasing workers’ performance from a managerial perspective, has become part of all aspects of life. How many in life can you name where nobody has asked you, “What’s your goal?” And with increased quantification and amount of data in both personal and private life the goal-setting trend doesn’t seem to slow down.

But even if the logical conclusion is that some forms of goal setting would make you perform better, it is sometimes hard to believe.

There are always those people who don’t seem to set any goals whatsoever and still perform great, and there are those people who set too ambitious goals and the pressure and expectations limit them. Too high expectations are what behaviour economist Daniel Airley mentions as a limit to happiness in life.

Therefore, it might not be surprising that the term trending right now is process goals. Setting a process goal means that you will not focus on the final output, but on the process and then hope that it will lead to the wanting performance.

Process goals are easier to achieve compared to goals focusing on result as you have the full influential power, and your expectations on the final output will be relatively lower. So maybe this is the golden way, setting high goals but keeping the low expectations.

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