Revising goals (Strategy II)

In Gary Klein’s work on insights, Seeing What Other’s Don’t (2013), the author spends a fair bit of time on discussing what happens when we have had an insight, and why so many organizations ignore them. His explanation is that many organizations lack a process for changing goals or adapting objectives. Klein notes:

People often resist goal insights. Organizations tend to promote managers who tenaciously pursue their assigned goals. They are people who can be counted on. This trait serves them well early in their careers when they have simpler tasks to perform, ones with clear goals. That tenaciousness, however, may get in the way as the managers move upward in the organization and face more difficult and complex problems. When that happens, the original goals may turn out to be inappropriate or they may become obsolete. But managers may be incapable of abandoning their original goals. They may be seized by goal fixation.

Klein, Gary from Seeing What Others Don’t (2013) p 220

Even in formal tests, we seem to be unable to update or revise our goals when events change, Klein cites a study looking at how managers performed in simulations where events made goals obsolete:

The Sengupta study tested hundreds of experienced managers in a realistic computer simulation. The scenario deliberately evolved in ways that rendered the original goals obsolete in order to see what the managers would do. They didn’t do well. Typically, the managers stuck to their original targets even when those targets were overtaken by events. They showed goal fixation, not goal insight.

Ibid p 221

One reason for this is that when we work with goal insights we reach a point where we have to revise our beliefs, and this means that we have to admit, at least to ourselves, that we were wrong. That smarts and may even light up the same areas in the brain as those that are connected to physical pain if it is associated with rejection.

“What should we do with all of these insights?”

It seems obvious, then, that most organizations do not revise their goals often enough. So, how can we change that? One way is to build goal revision into review cadences – and ensure that it is not associated with individual pride or pain, but with adaptation. You could even imagine appointing a goal challenger – someone who suggests a goal revision in the meeting. This would be a bit like a devil’s advocate, but with a constructive twist: the person in question needs to challenge the goal and suggest an alternative goal.

There are probably great savings here too. A lot of good money is thrown after bad goals.

Interestingly, organizations that focus on OKRs are probably especially vulnerable to this – because they invest so much in the objectives and key results. These become canonical, and questioning them is seen as weakness. It is almost built into OKRs: the idea that you should never reach your OKRs at 100% is tacit admission that it is better to work towards and objective and fail – than change the objective. This is why I increasingly think that the use of OKRs may need to be complemented with a focus on capabilities and adaptation – and goal revision is a part of that adjustment.

The key thing to get right here is to make sure that goal revision is not confused with goal reduction, and this is where the OKR-model has definitive strengths: it commits us to reach an objective that is ambitious – a BHAG, big, hairy and audacious goal – and doesn’t let us get off with something easier. So when revising a goal we need to test it for audaciousness – but that is completely doable!

Goal revision is not equal to lowering your ambitions or expectations. It is allowing insights to cut through.

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