Musings on Strategic Investigation, Performance Improvement, and Rhetoric

Performance Goals – Great If You Use Them Wisely


Goals are as Valuable as the Care You Put Into Them

Goals can be powerful things.  When used well, they can produce startling increases in performance; used badly, they can damage and destroy; used half-heartedly, they typically have hardly any effect at all.

The evidence of the benefits of well-set goals is hard to ignore.  Studies comparing goal-users against those with no goals or “do your best” instructions show consistently better performance by the goal users.  This is true for individuals, teams, and enterprises.  Studies of athletes regularly show improvements of 50-100% in the best responders.  Locke’s original landmark review of goal-setting studies in enterprises showed that 90% enjoyed material performance improvement from using goals.  The same review identified an average 40% performance improvement when goals were combined with monetary incentives.

The disastrous effects of badly-set goals are also hard to ignore.  Ordonez et al’s “Goals Gone Wild” gives an attention-grabbing selection of negative case examples of gaming, conflict, irresponsibility, and issue blindness from poor goal-setting.  These include Sears’ auto repair sales goals, which resulted in company-wide behaviour of overcharging and making unnecessary repairs.  The paper also includes the inevitable Enron example of sales targets that ignored profitability measures, with results that we all know.

Goals applied half-heartedly are just a waste of time.  Long-term goals have no performance enhancing effect if not combined with more immediate goals.  Goals, of any time frame, have no material performance-enhancing effect if not combined with feedback on results.

In a nutshell, the effort and thought you put into goals is rewarded in proportion.

How Goals Work

A major effect of goals on the mind is to focus the attention, something I’ve talked about before (here) as being critical to performance improvement.  Done well, goals help you direct your attention to what’s important, at the expense of what’s unimportant.

Studies that record multiple aspects of performance consistently show improvement in the aspects with goals, and little or none for areas where no goals are set.  This is as true in day-to-day life as in corporates: one study of collegiate rugby players showed between 26% and 118% improvement in pre-selected goal tasks over a season with negligible improvement in non-selected tasks.

Done badly, goals direct your attention, possibly inadvertently, onto damaging or unproductive work, which Goals Gone Wild illustrates at length.  

Without goals, you don’t just flounder; but you are more likely to get drawn into a range of nice-to-haves and ought-to-dos, with no prompt to choose how to prioritise your limited time, money and energy.

A second effect of goals on the mind is mobilising increased effort and persistence.  In observed field experiments, when people are allowed to control time, they prolong effort to hit goals.  When faced with tight deadlines, they increase work pace.  

Hard goals produce higher effort even than people’s self-directed attempts to work as hard as they possibly can.  In a study of cyclists, participants given hard goals actually performed at higher levels than those asked to cycle until they literally couldn’t pedal any more.

A third observed effect of well-set goals is to stimulate use of new or more productive strategies: prompting the mind to work smarter as well as harder.  This is a characteristic of planning, which I’ll cover in a separate set of future posts.

My favourite characterisation of the extremes to which focused attention and persistence exhibit themselves in pursuing a critical goal, and how ingenious strategies become, is from the documentary March of Penguins.  Natural world examples aren’t for everyone, so I’ve summarised this separately here.

Good Goal Habits

Given the enormous potential benefits involved, it’s worth investing some time to set and use goals well, taking on board the lessons that enterprises, sportspeople, scientists and others have learned and captured over the years.  The commonly-espoused SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Agreed, Relevant/Realistic, Time-based) goal-setting protocol is a good start; but it misses some critical steps, without which you’re wasting your time.

I’ll therefore use the next series of posts to lay out some Good Goal Habits, which summarise much of the accumulated knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.

Areas I’ll cover include: whether and how to use longer-term and shorter-term goals; how difficult should goals be; whether to use outcome goals or process goals; where to use multiple goals, and how to manage them; how explicit goals should be; the role of feedback and evaluation; the importance of goal commitment, and how to increase it; who to include in goal-setting; special characteristics of group and visionary goals; and characteristics of a top goal-setting and goal-hitting environment.

Next post, starting with the big picture: using long- and short-term goals together for an excellent goal structure.


Locke & Latham, 2002.  Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal-Setting & Task Motivation
Ordonez et al., 2009.  Goals Gone Wild
Locke & Latham, 2009. Has Goal Setting Gone Wild, or Have Its Attackers Abandoned Good Scholarship?
Mellalieu et al., 2006.  The Effects of Goal Setting on Rugby Performance
Dimitrova, 1970. Dependence of Voluntary Effort Upon the Magnitude of the Goal and the Way it is Set in Sportsmen
Botterill, 1977. Goal-setting and Performance on an Endurance Task

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