Has goal setting passed its sell-by date? - Preparing you for the future of work.

Has goal setting passed its sell-by date?

One of the basic tenets of running a successful business – or a successful life, for that matter – is that you have to set, and work towards, clear goals. But recent developments are shaking the foundations of this basic business principle.

Goal setting has been an important part of success for centuries, if not millennia. But, with innovation shifting from a being a “nice to have” to a basic survival skill for businesses, goal setting is simply no longer enough. And here’s why ...

When you are required to innovate, you set off on a journey for which you don’t know the destination. You may have a couple of ideas as to where you want to, or might be, going, but you may well end up in a completely different place to where you thought you would go. That’s what happens when you innovate, because one creative idea leads to another, and another.

The problem with goal setting is that, when you set specific goals, you’ve limited your outcome – to those goals. Innovation, on the other hand, puts no limits on the outcome.

So, as with many things in the 21st century, if you want to succeed in the future of work, you have to embrace the ambiguity of “and” thinking, which is rapidly replacing the much less complex “either/or” thinking.    

Business leaders who wish to ensure their businesses thrive in an increasingly uncertain and complex future have to make very sure they do not limit the potential of the business by imposing set goals on the business and its people and then expecting them to stick only to those goals. The word “only” is important in the previous statement. It’s important to set goals but not see those goals as all there is for the business and its people to achieve.

How can one provide scope for a business to move beyond its set goals?

When you set goals, don’t set them in concrete. Set elastic goals – that can expand or contract as innovation dictates.

Another way in which set goals restrict a company is that, when you have clearly defined goals, everybody knows that their performance, success, pay cheque and possible bonus is determined by those goals. So, guess what? They’re going to work at achieving those goals and not bother about anything beyond them. Sure, they’ll try to exceed their targets (goals) but that achievement will still be limited to “those goals”.

That’s one of the reasons companies shouldn’t really look to their high achievers to innovate. They’re so focused on meeting or exceeding targets that they do not want to risk failure by trying anything new and untested.

If business leaders wish to ensure their companies innovate their way to success in the future of work, they’re going to have to set innovation goals in addition to the normal business goals.

What those innovation goals will look like is anybody’s guess. No-one can determine what they will be until the innovation starts taking a direction of its own. That’s what current business leaders, trained in the Mechanical World with its linear thinking, are battling to cope with. Innovation requires non-linear thinking that appears to the mechanical thinker who applies logic and little creativity as highly erratic and unpredictable.

Don’t, however, throw the baby out with the bathwater. Set two kinds of goals – business goals and “innovation goals”. Then allow those innovation goals to find their own directions and destinations.

Also, set your brightest minds free to not only meet their business goals but also explore their innovation goals. The biggest limitation any person or company will have to deal with is the limitation they put on themselves. No other limitation is bigger than this. Don’t, therefore, limit your company’s potential by sticking to the self-limiting outcome of business goals. Embrace the unlimited potential that lies hidden in the minds and imagination of your people and take your company into the future with confidence!

Alan Hosking is the Publisher of HR Future magazine, www.hrfuture.net, @HRFuturemag. He is a recognised authority on leadership skills for the future and helps business leaders learn to lead with integrity, purpose and agility. He was named by US-based web site Disruptordaily.com as one of the "Top 25 Future of Work Influencers to Follow on Twitter".

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