Musings on Strategic Investigation, Performance Improvement, and Rhetoric

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.