Goal Setting Activities

Are Goal-Setting Activities Counter Productive?


In the recent blog-post 5 Easy Ways to Set Goals and Objectives that Will Help You Complete Projects, Pawel Grabowski concludes with a few sentences about the no goal approach to project management. His position is traditional. If your project lacks a clearly defined goal – there will be problems. In this blog-post I will take a closer look at the opposite stance: management without goals. A direction within goal setting theory that has been gaining terrain thanks to recent research.

But let me begin from a different end.

Have you ever traveled somewhat off the beaten path without following a given itinerary? Even those of us who haven’t can probably see that leaving the guidebooks at home while collecting information from fellow travelers and getting in touch with locals might lead to a more authentic and beneficial experience in the end. To set our final goal in advance is a bit like trying to predict the future though we know little about the situations and opportunities that will arise along the way. Flexible and perceptive travelers might end up at a destination they never even heard of before departure.


Lost” by Anne, all rights reserved

Artists and writers will also confirm that many of their greatest pieces manifested through them without being preceded by narrowing goal setting activities. Some of our greatest experiences in life is, plain and simply, the result of us being able to let go and follow loosely defined intentions, our ideals, vague ideas or sudden flashes of inspiration.

Does this relate to project management and goal setting theory?

I think It does! In every situation where environmental variables varies over time and random forces will be at play, effective goal setting activities is not as easy as one might think. But in our society goal setting has become somewhat of an obsession. In his article Why Goal Setting Doesn’t Work Ray Williams, summarizes the latest research findings in the field. Its an eye opening read. The following pointers, extracted from his article, are not just recognizable statements that agrees with common sense. They are well researched assumptions that contributes to the field of goal setting theory.

1. Detailed goals can blind people to important aspects of a problem or extraordinary possibilities that sometimes appear, unrelated to the goal.

2. Many times goal setting sets up an unnecessarily sharp dichotomy between 100% success and 99% success. Strict objectives can problematize results of good skills and efforts that doesn’t meet a goal that might have been unrealistic, arbitrarily or irrelevant in retrospect.

3. The effect of not achieving goals or just the fear of not doing it can be demotivating for many co-workers. This is also a common problem for people who try to change their diet and lifestyle and only measure progress through weight goals. They might have done progress in terms of strength and general well being but if the single minded judgment of the scale doesn’t meet the expectations, their incentive to change things for the better might take a serious blow.

4. Goal setting activities can damage organizational culture and promote cheating and misrepresentation of performance. The infamous Ford Pinto has become the classic example of this dangerous goal setting side effect. Ray Williams: “Presented with a goal to build a car “under 2,000 pounds and under $2,000 by 1970, employees overlooked safety testing and designed a car where the gas tank was vulnerable to explosion from rear-end collisions. Fifty-three people died as a result.”

Goal Setting Misstake

Steering Wheel” by Matteo Paciotti is licensed under CC BY 2.0

5. When people work simultaneously with many goals they tend to focus on tasks that are comparatively easier to achieve. The really important but difficult tasks might remain for much too long on their to-do list.

If you want to dig deeper into the subject I recommend the Harward Buisness School paper: Goals Gone Wild: The Use and Abuse of Goals.  

Benefits of the no goal school in goal setting theory

When we desire what we don’t already have our nervous system is going to produce negative emotions. Buddhists have known this for thousands of years and the contradiction between wanting to improve and being happy with who you are and what you have belong to the core of Buddhist teaching. To achieve mindfulness, that sought after but elusive presence in the moment, you need to learn to love what you do and to accept things the way they are. Just try to do a better job and be a good person! Does this relaxed and appealing attitude to life in general work at the office?

James Clear prolific writer on habit formation and performance improvement offers a simple but brilliant way around the potential problems with goal setting activities that seems to correspond with Buddhist wisdom. “If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week… If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.” Read his full article about goals and systems.

On a personal note. I routinely used quantitative goals for many years. I decided a week in advance how many pages I had to read or write on my work days. A barren goal setting activity that did not take into account my current ability to comprehend or create content. Today I care less about goals but I am always trying to perfect my system or to help the co-workers  that I am responsible for, to improve their methods instead of telling them to focus on, for example, how much money they should try to make on a single day. The system is all the things that we actually do, routines and ways of working that we can change and control to improve our performance. Forget about your goals and do your practice as good as possible in the present moment and the performance will follow automatically. James concludes that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.

Another small adjustment that might help a lot is to make that subtle but critical distinction between goals and intentions. Intentions gives directions and inspire you and your co-workers to venture further with a more critical, independent and explorative mindset.

How do you build a system that works? First: release the need for immediate results. The goal in a broad sense is almost always implied but it is not something that needs to be stated in red digits. Instead you should focus really carefully on the question: What do you need to be able to perform on top of your capacity in this situation? For me personally the answer is usually: I need to be able to block everything that might disturb my concentration to counteract my short attention span. System-thinking helped me to create productive habits and to embrace some unconventional but powerful performance enhancing tools. In the mornings, after a triple espresso, when I am usually alert and capable, I turn off my telephone and social media and play white noise in my earphones. This daily ritual is the most important part of my system. The role of project managers who apply system thinking is to inspire co-workers to never give up their personalized and carefully drafted routines.

Systems is not only a way of increasing the productivity of independent individuals. In a later blog-post we will try to answer the question: How can you visualize and develop systems that works well on team level?


I am not a proponent of management without goals as a strategy that makes all other approaches to goal setting obsolete. The idea that well-designed objectives can improve performance is one of the most tested and proven ideas in the whole of management theory. But there are many occasions that doesn’t go along well with the most common types of goal setting activities. You need to master the art of goal setting if you want to become truly effective at project management.

Create personalized systems for your employees and set goals but remember that goals narrows our focus. If this is dangerous or desirable depends on you and your goal. Think about goals as if they were beacons. With a beacon in sight you always know where you are going but if you look straight into it – your eyes will become blinded. So if you choose to work with goals, choose your goal setting activities with care and do not over prescribe them.

Another way of hacking goal setting theory is to choose the type of goal to use. Recent research indicates that learning or mastery goals can have a more desirable effect on motivation and performance than pure performance goals. They might be the better option if you want to create less competitive environments with people motivated to help each other and the organization. This is a subject large enough for a coming blog-post!

About the author

Holger Jacobsson (hlgrjcbssn@gmail.com) is a Brazil based freelance writer, concept developer and a long time Dreamler aficionado. Lately he has been working with reports and assessments ordered by business developers within the Swedish health care system.

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