Make Goals Count

There is little as exquisite as achieving a stretch goal!
There is little as exquisite as achieving a stretch goal!

Goals are important to planned success but are often half-heartedly approached or considered prepared when the end state is thought of an in the mind. Few individuals truly set goals in a manner that works. Even among the leadership of organisations and projects there is limited personal skill and success in goal setting. I assert that personal experience in goal setting and goal achievement leads to more effective project and strategic management. The better we are able to manage ourselves in inner leadership the better we can influence and affect positive change and results with others.

To set and achieve goals we need:

  • a sense of purpose that the goals support
  • commitment, discipline and focus; stay with the process through thick and thin
  • empathy and understanding; recognise and acknowledge cause for failures and setback and move forward without being over critical
  • willingness to change attitudes, behaviours, beliefs and our level of comfort
  • resilience; getting up as many times as we fall over
  • the ability to celebrate triumphs and grieve failures
  • to celebrate successes (milestone and final completion)

Goal Achieving Framework

To set and achieve goals it is essential we understand what we value. Energy, passion and commitment are accessible insofar as we align our goals with what really matters to us. Primary motivators in life include affiliation, power and achievement. These can have a significant impact on what we do. They are neutral regarding how we act. They are not at all inspiring. Inspiration comes from our values. They determine why we do things. They also affect the ‘how’ since they set limits on what we consider appropriate behaviour.

Values

Core Values are overarching operating philosophies we maintain regardless of how difficult circumstances may become. We typically have 3 to 5 such values. How clear are you on your core values? Do you know what you are not prepared to give up or relinquish in your quest for success in life? By clarifying our core values, some decisions are much easier to make. When we breach a core value we experience a loss of integrity, associated feelings of shame or guilt, regardless of whether we have identified the value or not.

Forces acting on us during change
Forces acting on us during change

General Values identify the relative significance of circumstances, states and ‘things’ to us at the moment. There are two forms of general value:

  • Pursuit Values: states (e.g. success) or feelings (e.g. happiness) we seek
  • Avoidance Values: states (e.g. depression) or feelings (e.g. anger) we avoid.

General Values are associated with two fundamental drivers behind all human action: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. If an action may result in pleasure and pain of comparable magnitudes, we tend to avoid the pain by not taking action. They may also hold the key for personal conflicts we experience. I remember identifying personal growth and peace as two values I sought. I wanted peace in my life but I never achieved it. When I examined the rules for each ‘value’ my rule for personal growth excluded the possibility of peace as I had defined it. I realised I had to change my rules or my expected state. I did both and now have peace and growth concurrently.

Managing Personal Change

Our goals require us to take action, and action necessitates change. Change unsettles. It has to! It requires us to shift established patterns, beliefs, values, and cultural and behavioural norms. The degree of change determines the impact experienced. Change impacts on us via three sources of pain: breaking attachments, breaching protections and dashing expectations.

Attachments (past) are our connections with established behaviours and relationships. Grief is pain experienced when we lose a family member. The pain associated with breaking a habit can keep us locked in. In a work environment, people have preferred patterns of work, ways they use systems, associates they enjoy working with, and some certainty in the results they can expect. They know what works, what does not, and have comfort through familiarity with where they are. Change these attachments at your peril!

Protections (present) are established to bring us security and certainty. Whether performing routines with known outcomes, acting in habitual ways (even negative behaviours) because we want specific responses from others, or being in a physical environment that is familiar, our ‘protections’ provide security for us. Our belief system can be a special form of protective mechanism. To achieve meaningful goals we often must change self-limiting beliefs. Anything that disrupts our protections becomes a source of discomfort.

Expectations (future) are aspirations that we have for the future. Examples include what our ideal partner is like, financial goals, the outcome of our next performance review, and who will be on our project team. Anything that causes our vision of the future to diminish causes pain. Expectations are attachments to the future.

Sources of pain: attachments, protections and expectations
Sources of pain: attachments, protections and expectations

Pain is a real turn off from taking action. We have a natural (and reasonable) aversion to pain. Gaining pleasure is the reason we do take action. To be successful we must associate much more pleasure than pain with taking action. We must reduce the pleasure and increase the pain of maintaining the status quo, and increase the pleasure and reduce the pain associated with the desired state. The greater the positive difference between where we want to be and where we are, the better our leverage will be. The leverage we have determines how strongly we take action.

Goal Setting Principles

General principles to apply to increase the chances of success include:

  • Get clear about ‘Why’. Before starting work, get clear and specific about why you want to take action. Establish why it is vital that you succeed, what the change will create for you, and what you will miss out if you do not succeed.
  • Specify what you will do and when. Plan the change. If this is a single step goal then this will include how, otherwise you need to map out milestones and time-frames so you can monitor and assess progress. This enables you to work on achievable chunks while maintaining a bigger picture perspective.
  • Identify who will take action or be otherwise involved. This had better have your name next to it. You are responsible for your results. However, it is also important to identify those you need to consult and involve.
  • Define ‘how’ each step will be accomplished. Get specific. The more clearly you define the tasks/steps, the better you are able to identify problems up front and ensure things are happening during execution.
  • Assess pleasure and pain of taking action. This equates to risk management at a personal level. Identify the forces operating for and against change. Consider approaches that enhance the pleasure and reduce the pain associated with achieving the goal.

Write down the goals and the plan for achieving them. This ensures the goals are not whimsical. The planning process helps internalise goals. Passion, energy and creativity is then accessible. Overwhelm the pain that prevents action with the pleasure associated with successfully accomplishing your goals.

If you are working on relationship goals the process of working with your partner and getting specific about what you seek and how you will accomplish it brings the energy and commitment of two people more clearly to bear, with fewer assumptions and miscommunications causing havoc and upsetting the process. Getting clear about what pain and pleasure is associated with the change will place you in a better position to support each other through the individual struggles you will experience.

When working with others to achieve goals (e.g. on projects) remember you need:

  • clarity about intent, purpose and process
  • vigilance to uncover sources of resistance
  • creativity and empathy to find workable solutions to assist people (your own self when pursuing individual goals) past the resistance
  • communication (2-way) so that understanding and clarity can be developed and maintained
  • celebration to applaud success

Conclusion

The concepts are easy. The practice is not so easy. If you associate pleasure with planning and goals setting, it may become a powerful ally in your life. Overcome the resistance that impedes change. Decide to make your time on this planet count. These principles apply to relationships, projects and organisations so any success at the personal level supports you in other environments.

I challenge you to:

  • Get clear about what you want to achieve and why
  • Create leverage around the reasons for change
  • Get on with it
  • Take up my offer of a free coaching session to get started

Power In Goals

Engage your brain to achieve your goals
Engage your brain to achieve your goals

Neuroscience increasingly provides fabulous insight into what the brain actually needs for our performance to improve. As a coach, I am aware of how individuals and teams can improve their capacities as they establish goals that engage the brain, and then they work to keep the brain engaged in pursuing their ambitions. By recognising goals as personal and/or team developmental opportunities and approaching them with the correct mind-set much power can be developed.

SMART goals have been written about endlessly, with more ways of applying words to the acronym than I have been able to keep up with. The version I have adopted is Specific, Measurable, Agreed to, Realistic, and Time Bound. It is a great formula, and is used with success in pursuing individual and team goals the world over. Projects use SMART goals to define high-level goals for the project, and the goals that define results needed from each phase, milestone and work package. In many respects, these goals can be considered Checklist Goals, short- to medium-term goals that must be satisfied for the project to be delivered, and achieving them signifies some degree of delivery has been realised. Checklist goals have a lot of clarity about HOW they will be achieved. The clarity of how to progress, and then the tangible, relatively short time frame for delivery really works well for our brains. They get the brain fired up and engaged in a pattern now recognised with staying focused and on task.

SMARTI goals are a special form of goal, the Stretch Goal. The ‘I‘ for Inspiring, recognises that real change comes from doing something outstanding, something almost impossible. J. F. Kennedy provided a very clear SMARTI goal when he stated that Americans would land on the moon before the end of the decade (1960’s). The power of his statement inspired the nation, indeed the world, and provided a fantastic aspiration that galvanised years of research, development, action and delivery. The inspirational component provided a common purpose and direction that aligned countless teams of people to make landing on the moon a reality. What really worked for the moon landing was the combination of inspirational element that clearly spelled out the aspiration, and the planning detail that spelled out how to achieve the goal, as the how came clearer. An important aspect of sound planning is that it progressively elaborates on the detail and irons out the kinks in approach, addressing work to be done, risks to address, and who will do what when.

Performance against Stretch Goals is undermined by a lack of planning detail on ‘how’ to achieve the goal. Neuroscience has discovered that Stretch Goals do not fire the brain in the same way that a Checklist Goal does. The long-term nature of the Stretch Goal and the frequent lack of substance on how to achieve it means the brain does not engage as it does with the short-term goal. It is a contributing factor for why energy and focus drops for Stretch Goals and they get dropped after a while. Science is showing more clearly that Stretch Goals must be supported by ongoing attention on how to achieve them, effectively engaging the brain with some clarity on ‘how’, and with recognition that there will be obstacles to overcome for them to have lasting motivational power.

When I work with coachees on their goals I ensure that their stretch goals are aspirational, and that there is sufficient detail developed on how to achieve the goal for the coachee to stay engaged, and performance can be monitored. Not only is it important to know how you will achieve something, it also matters that you recognise and acknowledge progress, or its lack, and regularly fine tune your behaviours to align with your purpose. Much of the power of coaching comes from a coachee owning their results and recognising what they are doing that is making the difference. Goals can be short-, medium-, or long-term in nature. It is the ownership and commitment to our goals, the responsibility we hold for their success, and the action we take to deliver them that strengthens our power, our ‘ability to take meaningful action’.

Make goals work for you. Include an aspirational component that inspires you to action, and develop the detail so that you can stay engaged and monitor your performance.

Easier Can Be Better

Taking the easier course of action
Easier can sometimes better

Tremendous energy can be poured into changing old patterns and behaviours. When you identify some quality of yourself that is not working for you, the tendency is to place enormous attention on changing it to a satisfactory behaviour. For most of us, that is accompanied by our internal critic working overtime, that voice within us that speaks into our middle ear about how we don’t measure up, won’t amount to much, and are under performing. The more effort we exert to change, the greater this voice that articulates all the accumulated negative feedback of our past becomes. It can become a riot in our mind. Even without the critic, and there appear to be the fortunate few with that blessed silence, focussing on changing old patterns tends to be a long and relatively unrewarding process.

Neuroscience has identified that once a neural pathway is established, and only a few repetitions are needed for the brain to adopt and establish a new pathway, it is almost impossible to remove. The best approach for change is to bed down another pathway, and place attention on asserting that behaviour until it becomes dominant. Rather than remove the old pathway, the idea is to create a newer, more productive, and more frequently used, pathway that makes the less productive pathway irrelevant through disuse.

I had an experience of this recently. Following significant surgery I had earlier last year I have found my confidence when facilitating groups markedly diminished. The degree of nervousness prior to running a session was significantly greater than my pre-surgery experience, and after I completed a session I found my critic undermining me for the most insignificant of reasons. However, when I was actually in front of the group running the session I had almost none of those issues, finding myself comfortable and increasingly fluent in my facilitation. On a recent weekend programme, the struggle against these before and after pain-laden attacks on my psyche were particularly pronounced. Rather than fretting over the behaviours that were undermining me, I shifted my focus by firstly sharing very simply with others I trusted that I was anxious, struggling, and otherwise authentically expressing and naming my experience in the moment. This had the effect of diminishing the energy building up around the anxiety, and curbed it. I then found that my capacity within a session improved because my warm up to it was cleaner, and the post-session internal shame game also diminished. As the multi-day programme unfolded I continued this practice and found that the confidence was easier to achieve as I owned my anxiety without making a big deal of it. I consciously placed my attention on the outcome I was seeking, a fluid and confident facilitation session. My focus and attention was very much placed on the outcome I sought rather than on changing the old pattern of anxiety, and the transition felt relatively smooth.

When you have an unproductive behaviour that is dominating you, perhaps you can identify what you would prefer to do instead, and find ways of asserting that behaviour, rather than condemning and “changing” the old one. Some ways of supporting and enabling such change in oneself can be journalling, enlisting the support of a coach, and developing awareness of your inner mental and emotional world to determine the most opportune intervention to offer yourself.