Wright, N. & Marshall, R. (2006) ‘New Horizons – Goal Setting and Performance’, Training & Learning, Institute of Training & Occupational Learning, Volume 2, Issue 5, May, pp28-29.
In their third article on performance management and development, Nick Wright and Richard Marshall introduce goal setting as a valuable and integral performance process.
Things move fast when you’re cruising at speed just 10 metres off the ground. ‘Don’t look at the trees - you will steer towards whatever you focus on so keep looking straight ahead!’ I could hear the instructor’s words ringing in my ears on that first solo flight with a paraglider, dangling in mid-air with wind rushing past and a gritted determination not to hit any bone-breaking object.
The instructor’s advice resonates with principles that we are applying to goal setting and performance management in World Vision UK. As a complex and dynamic Christian relief and development organisation based in 96 countries around the world, we face the challenge of how to focus our efforts rather than trying to meet every need and respond to every crisis, whether in another continent or another department along the corridor. What we are going to do in this article, based on this principle that focus determines direction, is to show that conscious and careful goal-setting is a key element of performance management and development good practice.
Goals are aims or end-points. They sit somewhere between vision and objectives. At best, they’re (a) more specific than broad-sweeping vision and (b) more visionary and aspirational than simple task objectives. Goals provide a sense of purpose and direction: ‘this is what or where we’re aiming for, even if how we get there has to change on route.’ They also provide a basis for prioritising and helping avoid distracting secondary issues: ‘let’s remind ourselves of what the goal is…’ This resonates with Stephen Covey’s second habit, “Begin with the end in mind”[i] which encourages us to identify the destination first and then figure out how to get there. The old adage may also be true: “If you don’t know where you are going, you may end up somewhere else.”
Goals should be motivating. Motivating goals are those that have an element of stretch or challenge and contain within them the possibility to do something beyond the horizon of what one would have ordinarily thought possible. According to Gestalt theory, if a person conceptualises an attractive goal clearly enough (e.g. what it will look like, what it will feel like when you get there), he or she will feel naturally impelled to move forward in that direction.
The real skill in goal-setting involves helping a person to set their own goals, and this is often best achieved through coaching approach.[ii] The risk is that when a manager sets goals for a staff member, they can be experienced by that person as imposed (demotivating), under-stretching (boring) or over-stretching (demoralising). Just as we tend to treat property we own with more care and attention than a house we rent, so we tend to feel more ownership for goals we have helped to create. The coaching process may be more time-consuming in the short term but often proves more time-efficient in the long run.
In an organisational context, personal goals should normally both be derived from and contribute to the achievement of wider organisational goals. In collaborative cultures like that of World Vision UK, this process tends to be fluid and both top down and bottom up, i.e. organisational goals simultaneously represent (a) a composite of personal/team goals and (b) the primary source of those goals.
Our own performance development system focuses on three specific goal areas: (a) key tasks, (b) core capabilities and (c) personal, professional and spiritual development.[iii] Staff and managers work together to identify and agree goals in each of these areas with relevant performance indicators, action plans and dependencies, on an annual basis. Managers provide coaching support, and staff and managers review goals together informally on a regular basis. Progress against goals and a review of issues arising takes place more formally at mid-year and end-of-year, the latter involving wider stakeholder input.
Articulating goals explicitly means that managers, staff, fellow team members and other stakeholders are aware of performance and development targets and are able to evaluate progress in an open and constructive manner. We believe that high quality goal creation is a significant factor in the achievement of high performance. We now encourage managers to invest considerable time in open conversation, exploration and negotiation to ensure genuine ownership of the goals and avoid lip-service or premature commitment.
We have found that the GROW model can be a useful goal-setting tool, taking into account reality checks, options and motivational issues.[iv] Some goals are best defined in SMART terms, e.g. those linked to technical projects with very specific processes, outcomes and timeframes.[v] The SMART model aims to provide clarity of definition and a basis for monitoring and evaluation. We believe that R in SMART is best used to signify relevant; e.g. does the goal coincide with priorities, is this the right time to do it, is this the right person to do it? It is, of course, possible to define goals that have no strategic value in perfectly SMART terms. In this sense, R can be reflective of a wisdomethos - it’s about making sure you have the right goals for the right person at the right time.
SMART could also be enhanced further by prefixing with V, where V signifies values. Values are those underlying principles that govern, or ought to govern, ethics and practice. ‘Anhialate the competition’ may be applauded as a worthy goal in some sectors but not in our own. World Vision has explicit Christian values that influence its vision and which it seeks to reflect and embed in all strategy, policy and practice. It is important to ensure that goals are both consistent with and reinforce desired cultural values in order to maintain personal and organisational congruence.
Similarly, the means by which goals are created and achieved must be consistent with personal and organisational values. If such values are violated, it will lead to stress, incongruence, cynicism and long-term unsustainability. This necessarily places limits on what goals are appropriate and achievable and on how they should be achieved. The means will not always justify the ends. ‘Can we achieve this goal in a way that genuinely upholds (reinforces, safeguards) our values?’ If not, re-think the goal.
In summary, on the basis of our own experience of goal setting in World Vision, we would offer the following practical advice to others committed to enhancing their own goal-setting processes:
1. Ensure all parties are clear about organisational vision and goals.
2. Enable staff to create their own goals and monitor their own progress.
3. Ensure alignment between goals and personal-organisational values.
4. Encourage reflection and self-assessment of progress.
The next article in this series will focus on personal, team and organisational development. Future topics will include appraisal as a development tool and handling difficult performance conversations.
[i]See Covey, S. (1990) Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
[ii]See previous article in this series: Spirit of Coaching, Training & Learning, March 06.
[iii]See previous article in this series: A Good Performance, Training & Learning, January 06.
[iv]See Whitmore, J. (1996) Coaching for Performance.
[v]SMART is an acronym that conventionally refers to the following goal characteristics: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound.