Myths and Truths about Goal Setting

February 1, 2024 Madeleine Homan Blanchard

“I feel like not a single person on my team knows what they are doing. I am at my wits’ end,” says the president of a globally recognized athleisurewear company. He hired me to coach him to be a role model for using SLII®, and he is upset. His entire management team has been through SLII®—the Blanchard program that teaches managers how to provide direct reports with the right combination of direction and support, depending on the goal.

“These people are all seasoned professionals; I just don’t get it.”

“Okay,” I say. “What if we were to take a look at their goals, so we can identify where each person might need a little more support or direction from you.” Silence. We are on Zoom, so I can see him staring off into space. He does that for a long time. I watch his expression go from confused, to incredulous, to annoyed.

Finally, he completes his thought process and drops back into our conversation at a loss for words. He shakes his head and, sounding chagrined, says, “You know, going into 2020 we spent Q4 of 2019 working to get all the goals for all the departments clarified. We were all so confident and focused. Then Covid hit, and we have been scrambling—the crazy increase in demand, the breakdown of supply chains, vendors ghosting us—firefighting, basically. I just realized we never stopped to revise our goals in light of the new normal. No wonder everyone is at sea.”

He felt sheepish. His first thought was that his people were floundering, but he had no one to blame but himself. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it. What’s wrong with me? Now I know exactly what I need to do, right this minute. Next time we talk, I will have entirely revised goals for the whole team.”

The crazy thing is that no one on his team saw it, either. And when he pointed out what he called “a blinding flash of the obvious,” they were as chagrined as he was. The consensus was “What’s wrong with us? How did we not see this?”

It took several variations on this conversation for me to get my own blinding flash: goals—especially organizational goals that require entire teams to be aligned—are always a work in progress. They must be revised when new information becomes available.

There seems to be a collective amnesia about goals once they have been set. In The New One Minute Manager®, Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson recommend we print out our goals and tack them above our desk. “Ha!” I thought, when I read that. “Who forgets their own goals?”

Well, it turned out, in 2019, I did. I went searching for the goals I had set with all members of my team at the end of the year, and wouldn’t you know—I had entirely forgotten about a big one. I was humbled as I thought about how that could have happened and tried to pinpoint where things went off track. One of my senior leaders had an illness in the beginning of the year and took a long leave of absence before she went on permanent disability. I realized all of my focus went into managing the disruption in the midst of an emotional roller coaster.

As is often said: we plan, God laughs. I personally am not proud to be a constant source of comedy. But if this can happen to experienced business leaders like my client and me (I’ve been goal oriented since the fourth grade), it stands to reason that setting and keeping goals is a constantly moving target.

Here are the morals of these stories.

Keep Your Eye on the Ball. Life gets complicated. We are all at the mercy of the unexpected and we are easily knocked off course. Having goals helps us narrow our focus and learn how to say no to things that aren’t going to help us achieve our goals. Working toward a goal also increases our tolerance of delayed gratification. When we get struck by life’s inevitable curve balls, having a goal can help us get back on track. The only resources available to us are our time and our strengths. Goals help us invest those resources wisely. When things change or new information becomes available, we have to revisit our goals and modify accordingly.

Set Good Goals. This is a skill that takes practice. When it comes to setting personal goals, most people are bad at knowing what they really want. Left to our own devices, humans will more likely play to not lose than to win. Many senior leaders can get tripped up by the need to not only prioritize goals but also achieve the clarity required to set goals that are aligned with the company’s goals.

When coaches work with individuals, the first order of business is to set goals for the coaching. (How else would people know if they had gained any value from the coaching?) It is the only true measure of a successful coaching engagement. But it can be extraordinarily difficult. Some clients come to coaching knowing exactly what they want to work on, but need a little help making their goals more specific. Other clients come to coaching with some ideas, but need help clarifying and prioritizing. Then there are the clients who come to coaching not having had the time or brain space to even think about it. We once had a member of our coach team who said he only wanted to work with people who knew exactly what their goals were. All I could think was: “Wait a minute—isn’t that half the job?” He is no longer a coach for Blanchard Coaching. Another one of our coaches, Norbert Horn, compared trying to coach without goals to getting in a taxi without a destination in mind. An apt analogy.

All of the sponsors who engage us to provide coaching for their leaders are desperate for ROI. They want to be able to measure and report out on the positive impact of their investment. We can compare pre and post metrics like engagement scores, retention, and sales to show impact on the bottom line, but the ultimate test is in the answers to these questions:

  • Did our leaders set relevant goals?
  • Did they make significant progress towards those goals?
  • Does that progress make a difference to the quality of the leadership and other things the organization cares about?

In the context of coaching in organizations, setting good goals is the most critical step—and the one that is most often overlooked.

Plan Backwards. I often start my coaching engagements with this question: “In a perfect world, what will you have in six months that you don’t have now?” It can be very difficult to envision forward—the vision can get all jumbled up with ideas of what is needed to achieve the goals. It can be much smoother to think ahead to a desired outcome and then work backwards. So a person sees what they want and then asks themselves, “Okay, what needs to happen right before I get the outcome?” and then “What needs to happen before that?” and so on. Often, this method reveals that the goal is too big to be accomplished in a six-month period—but at least it clarifies what can actually be accomplished in that time frame.

The Evolution of SMART

I will never forget the first time I learned about SMART as a method for setting goals. It was 1985 and I was trying to manifest an acting career with not a single clue of how to go about it. My idea of setting a goal was: get acting work. It was vague and directionless. Depending on whom you talk to, the letters can stand for different things; but when I learned it, SMART stood for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Trackable.

Specificity and measurability can be unexpected hurdles. It makes sense that goals that include clear and trackable numbers are easier to set: the numbers on the scale don’t lie and sales quotas are non-negotiable. All other types of goals require some creative thinking. If a client wants to increase the quantity and quality of their relationships, for example, we need to do the hard work of establishing who exactly needs to be on the list and how we will measure the quality of each relationship.

Attainability can also trip people up. No one wants to aim low, but no one wants to be frustrated by a goal that is out of reach, either. The person I learned SMART from—Henry Kimsey House, one of the cofounders of the Co-Active Training Institute—explained that we should make our goal big enough to be exciting but not so big as to be ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong—I have always aimed a little too high. I rarely reach my goals because I set goals that are (apparently) out of my reach. But I am quite certain what I’ve achieved is much more than I would’ve if I had never set goals. When I published my first book, the goal was for it to be a New York Times Best Seller. It never actually made the list, but, hey, at least I got a book published. So I’d say go big. Only you can be the judge of what is ridiculous. I would never go so far as to compare myself to James Cameron, but it resonated with me when I read an interview in which he said: “If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success.”

Relevant means you have to care about the goal so that if you actually achieve it, you will be truly pleased with the result. It has to mean something to you. You have to care. A lot. When my goal was to get acting work, I did, indeed, get acting work. It was unpaid, often experimental, with people who had no experience producing, and so far off Broadway that I couldn’t get any potential agents or casting directors to come and see my work. My results were, quite literally, a waste of time and completely irrelevant.

Trackability is key because it gives us the criteria for every action we choose to move us closer to the goal. If the action isn’t going to move the checker piece across the board, what is the point?

My experience is that wrestling a goal to be perfectly SMART can be so tedious that some people bail before they have even begun. If SMART is simply too hard, another way of goal setting that I learned from Scott Blanchard is that, at the very least, a goal needs to comply with The 3C’s: it needs to clear, compelling and connected.

The great power of goal setting that no one really talks about is that setting a goal, writing it down, and saying it out loud sends a signal to other people and to whomever or whatever one thinks of as the Divine. It somehow invokes help from others and from the Universe, not to mention the physical law of momentum. If a lack of goals fosters inertia, then goals force action and action begets action. Action spurs new information that helps us refine or modify the goal. It can feel like magic, but it may just be physical laws.

The Number One Reason People Don’t Reach Their Goals

Aside from the obvious—that people tend to not reach goals that are vague or poorly thought through, or, God forbid, that they don’t care about—the number one reason people don’t reach their goals is that they set too many. When I work with a coaching client, my experience is that two goals is the ideal number and three goals is a maximum. It isn’t that people can’t engage in activities that don’t at first seem connected to one of their goals. We all have requirements that feel random or like time-wasters. But I have found that almost all activities can and should be attached to one of their goals. This engenders a certain elegance that can provide a strong sense of well-being.

This or Something Better

One of the biggest obstacles to achieving the kind of specificity that makes a goal powerful is a lack of certainty that the goal is the right goal. People can get caught up in questions such as “What if there were a better goal out there?” I learned something from coaching colleague Cheryl Richardson many years ago, which provided a beautiful way to resolve this concern. When we set a goal—as clear, compelling and connected as we can make it—we then write: “This or something better.”

Working with Henry all those years ago, I came up with a goal to play a lead in a Stephen Sondheim musical on Broadway. I stopped wasting time going to auditions that were not going to get me anywhere near that goal, narrowed my focus, prepared very specific audition material and very nearly got cast in my favorite role in a revival of A Little Night Music on Broadway. The only reason my dream didn’t happen is that the big star who was going to play the female lead got ill and the whole project was scrapped. And I did end up getting cast as the lead in Evita on National Tour, which was not only perfectly acceptable to me, but absolutely thrilling.

“This or something better” is a nod to the fact that we don’t always have the full picture, we don’t always have all the information, and we don’t always know what is best for us. It invites others and (whether you believe in it or not) the Unseen Power to gift us with alternatives. Ones we can’t even imagine. Which brings me to my final thought on what I believe is one of the biggest and most debilitating myths about goal setting.

You Have to See it to Be it. Nope.

This just isn’t true. It doesn’t hurt to have a clear vision of what we want. But it isn’t a prerequisite to manifesting amazing things. This particular cliché has kept more people from setting good goals than just about any other. Some wildly successful people will tell you that, in fact, they did envision every little detail of what they have achieved. But just as many will admit that what they have achieved is beyond anything they could have imagined. So ultimately, it isn’t false, but it isn’t 100% true either. Sometimes you simply have an inkling, maybe just a clue. Sometimes it is the faintest vision that doesn’t even make sense.

For most of my 20s and 30s, I would occasionally have a vision of a huge dining room table. I honestly had no idea what it meant; I was way too focused on my goals. But every so often I would see a big table in someone’s house, and I would be drawn to it. It wasn’t until I married the love of my life and doubled the number of children I was raising that I ended up with a house big enough for four kids and—you guessed it—a huge table. It wasn’t until I built the life that required a big table at which all were welcome that I realized it was something I had been yearning for all along.

Some visions are fleeting and incomprehensible. There is magic in movement and mysterious forces we cannot know. But one thing is certain: to win the lottery, you have to buy a ticket.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Setting Goals

  • If I could wave a magic wand and create anything, what would it be?
  • If I find myself doubting this is something I can have, what is the story I am telling myself that feeds that doubt?
  • What makes this so important?
  • How do I know this thing is so important to me?
  • How disappointed will I be in myself if I don’t at least try to create what I want?
  • Who can help me achieve this goal? How might I help them in return?

So many people who attempt to set goals but get stuck, or fail to achieve the goals they do set, are disappointed and take it personally. Worse, they blame themselves. This can discourage people from trying again. It is painful to experience and painful to witness. So much of the instruction relating to goal setting makes it sound so simple—so when people fail, they assume they didn’t do it right. No one told them how to make their goal so crystal clear, so compelling, and so deeply connected to what matters to them that they can’t help but take action. No one told them not to attempt more than one or two goals at a time. No one told them to surround themselves with people who support their goal. And, almost certainly no one told them that achieving their goal would take at least three times the work they thought it would, and would take a lot more time than they wanted to invest. 

Sometimes goal-oriented people get lucky, but the rest of us just have to keep at it. So don’t be fooled by those who make both setting and achieving goals sound simple or easy. Setting and achieving goals requires a lot more time, thought, edits, and re-working than anyone wants.  So if you are feeling challenged, you are not alone. Get help. Write down your goals and add “this or something better” at the end of each one. Print them out and post them on your bathroom mirror to keep them top of mind. If it all gets to be too much, and some days, it will, take a little break and come back to them. 

And don’t give up.

Editor's Note: Would you like to experience more of Madeleine's thoughts on coaching high performance leadership?  Join her for a look into Blanchard's Leadership Coach Certification.  This online, virtual instructor-led program for credentialed coaches provides an in-depth understanding of the Blanchard approach to leadership development. Learn more using this link.

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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