by Rafael Aguayo
What?! You say. Goals are necessary. I need goals. Goals give direction. Management is about achieving goals. All management gurus, or at least many of them, require you to set goals.
Yes and almost all of them are wrong. Here is one example of the stupidity and futility of goals. Sorry for being so direct, but the time for politeness and euphemisms is over. Our nation is heading towards a precipice.
The Guaranteed Failure of No Child Left Behind
- Recently (march 2011) Arne Duncan the secretary of Education in the Obama administration announced that he expected 80% of the schools in the nation to be rated as failing under the Federal Government’s No Child Left Behind act, a well meaning but doomed attempt to improve education in the US. The aim is noble: improve education in the US. The program began earlier in the decade as the major educational initiative of the Bush administration. At inception perhaps 25% of all schools in the nation had 100% of their students testing as being reading proficient. The knee jerk reaction, of course, was to get 100% of our schools to achieve reading proficiency for 100% of their students, what else. And of course this would be determined by taking a standardized test given by each state.
And how were our schools to achieve that? Easy enough, set a goal. No one believed that the goal could be reached overnight so the idea was to gradually raise the target thereby giving schools and school systems a chance to gradually reach the 100% goal. Sounds great and many people bought into it. Little by little does the trick. With small increases in the target each year, each school could improve a little each year and reach the goal. Sounds great, but it is utter nonsense. Setting a goal for people to achieve without creating a way to achieve that goal is not just useless it is dangerous.
If each school could have achieved the 100% reading proficiency goal, each school would have already done so. What was the plan to make this happen? The plan was management by objectives, rewards and punishments. Those schools that failed to keep up with the target goal as it rose each year would be rated a failure. Those schools who succeeded would be recognized and of course their principals and teachers would be recognized and probably have a more lucrative career in education.
Suppose we roll an evenly balanced die and reward those people who roll a 5 or above. That would be a fun game, but suppose we then made it mandatory for everyone to roll a 5 or above and handed out serious punishments for failing to do so and rewards for achievement. That would be no more ridiculous and destructive than what we are doing today in education. The only difference is that in the case of the die many people will know from the start that the game is futile, ridiculous and due to chance. In the case of No Child Left Behind even smart people are getting caught up in the farce.
Guaranteed Ways to Meet the Goals
There is a way that schools can avoid being graded as failing as the target gets raised. The state can change the definition of proficiency by changing the tests that measure it. And this happens. A bright six year old could tell you that changing the test does not change the underlying reality but apparently our politicians, some leaders and many people cannot. And so the charade of No Child Left Behind and other government programs continues. Not only do we continually fail to properly educate our children but our teachers and school administrators are distracted from their real jobs of teaching and educating.
To meet the goals set by No Child Left Behind teachers and administrators can resort to several tricks.
- Teach to the test
- Teach by drilling on similar tests
- Transfer poor performing students elsewhere
- Give students the answers
These things happen regularly. Don’t blame the teachers and administrators they are just doing their jobs as per the guidelines established by Congress and the President. Meanwhile teachers cannot spend time to understand their students and prepare better classes. Meanwhile no serious work is being done to understand the issues of our current educational system and no work is being done to improve it. There is no dialog, no research and no thought within No Child Left Behind that could possibly lead to improvement.
Goals not only do not work they distort the efforts of those involved and end up making things much worse.
What is another word for goals? How about Wishes? Twinkle, twinkle little star, make a wish, invoke some words. None of these work and only make things worse.
Do goals serve any purpose? Yes. Personal goals, as one example, can give a person direction. If one reviews them regularly they may keep you aware of your goal and help lead you to action that is consistent with the goal. But anyone who has used personal goals knows that even on this level they fail regularly. New years’ resolutions made with the best of intentions have been forgotten before the end of January.
People hire personal coaches, life coaches, psychiatrists and others to help them meet their personal goals and yet they still fail. Changes on a personal level can involve examining your belief systems, your habits, what is really important for you. It probably involves making changes in your life that do not seem to be related to the actual goal. If you want to get in shape you might join a gym or bike club, do some work to change your sleep habits, throw out your television or take other substantial steps. You need to bring in knowledge from the outside and you need to more deeply understand yourself and make some substantial changes. Even with these changes you are not assured of meeting your goal.
Goals in Your Life
The most effective way I have found in dealing with personal goals is the Smart Outcome Method that I learned in Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) training. Outcomes are different than goals. For instance your goal might be to lose 20 pounds, but if you leave it at that it is just a wish. More has to be done.
Smart outcomes must meet five criteria.
- They are within your control
- They are stated in the positive
- They are contextualized
- They are measurable, in that you must have a way of determining if you met the outcome or not and
- They must be ecological.
Let’s go over how that would work for the wish of losing 20 pounds.
Within your control: Clearly that is not within your control. But what is in your control are certain actions that might lead you to lose weight. You could begin to live a healthier lifestyle but that is still too general. More specific might be “I will change my breakfast from my present high carbohydrate breakfast to one with some protein and fruits.” You might aim to change all your meals, little by little and you might also decide to increase your exercise levels and walk, jog, run or do yoga three times a week. All these things are within your control at least in theory.
Stated in the positive: Instead of saying I will not eat my current high carbohydrate breakfast, which states your outcome in the negative, you would state it as: I will eat a delicious high protein, low carbohydrate breakfast, or whatever you consider to be a significant change for the better.
Point 3 is that the outcome must be contextualized. In this case this is about your personal life and it is clear what the context is, your personal health and weight. Many desired outcomes might be different for work, with friends or family. Be clear which you addressing.
Point 4 is measurable. How will you know if you are succeeding or not? Perhaps keeping a card that you check off every time you eat the right breakfast will do the trick. Then you can see at a glance if you are succeeding or failing.
Point 5, however, is the kicker. Your smart outcome must be ecological. It must be congruent with who you are. It must be good for you. Who determines what is good for you is not your conscious mind or your so-called rational mind. It is one of many parts of you that you may not even be conscious of. We often use a shorthand to refer to this part or these parts as the unconscious. Contrary to many schools of academic thought, such as economics, humans are not stick figures with a small head who make decisions based on a single criterion such as price. We are not rational in that simple sense, but there is great wisdom in the seemingly irrational way that we live our lives. Biologists might say that our minds and bodies have developed in ways that have made our survival possible, even optimal.
If a part of you does not agree with your smart outcome, not to mention your goal, you will not be able to achieve it. But that is not the end of the story. Then you need to investigate what is the objection. It could be that you have a strong cultural, familial or personal identity with your current breakfast, or that you just dislike the protein you had in mind for your new breakfast. And now you have to dig deeper and better understand yourself. Aw shucks, this is work. What a concept, you need to understand yourself better to change yourself. Know thyself is as old a maxim as anything else we know, tracing back at least to the spiritual traditions of the temples of Delphi in ancient Greece. My suspicion is that it has even older roots.
Yes change and improvement is more than setting a goal. It requires thought and knowledge. If your smart outcome is ecological then you are on your way. I personally use goals and smart outcomes myself. One of my goals is to bring my weight down to 200 lbs during the cycling season, which begins in the spring and runs through the fall. But I do have a plan to achieve that that includes changing my food intake and riding with my bike club. The last few years I have achieved that but when I did not achieve my target in the past I could be pretty harsh with myself. And even when I did hit my target weight, my mind would then turn to a new target, 190.
For me personally targets can be useful when they are handled intelligently as smart outcomes, and one does not lose perspective. But I also know from experience that goals can be like gasoline, highly volatile and explosive.
Let us extend this conversation to businesses and organizations. How would this apply beyond the personal? After all it is easy to criticize and critique something but much more difficult to give some insight as to how to do it correctly.
In the next article we will look at goals and targets in business and organizations and how they might be better used and what practices must be avoided at all costs.
Download a PDF of Goals can Kill Part I Here