Coaching: are goals still useful in a climate of rapid change?
When the world has been turned upside down, is there any point in setting goals anymore? In a coaching context, goals are still useful – but there’s much more to it than simply ticking off SMART objectives.
I was involved in an interesting conversation with some colleagues recently about the nature of goals in light of the pandemic. It was around the time many of us were thinking about New Year’s resolutions and and an HR manager I know was pondering whether there was any point setting goals anymore.
Goals are still useful, I think, but must be seen as just one type of aim – not set in a vacuum or without thought to what might happen with regard changes in the big picture.
What happened to all the SMART goals carefully constructed at the start of 2020, he wondered? This is a good point and it got me thinking and wondering if this perfectly valid question could be construed as an invitation to abandon goal setting, which, after all, can often seem like too painful a task, especially in a work setting. (In fairness this is not what my colleague suggested. He argued in favour of a different type of goal but I’ll come back to that).
The debate reminded me of long conversations I’ve had over the years about the place of goal setting within a coaching relationship. In my view they remain an important component but there is more to it than simply ticking off the SMART criteria and it’s a failure to realise this that often derails goal achievement.
Three types of aim
In my view a coaching session, however lengthy or short, formal or informal, needs to start by establishing some aims. We'll need aims for the session itself and an overall aim for the coaching issue. For example, I might have an overall aim of becoming IT literate, but a coaching session aim of exploring ways of working with long documents in a word processing package.
I like to use the word 'aims', but you can easily substitute it with KPIs, objectives, targets, standards or whatever other term organisations use to essentially describe ‘where are we trying to get to with this’?
It is useful to think of three levels, or types, of aim.
|Performance goals||What||The specification|
Dreams (or end goals) provide the inspiration to want to achieve something – a reason why if you like. Since they are not wholly within our area of control, however, we can lose focus if we see them coming under threat.
For example, if my sole focus in 2020 had been to achieve that managerial promotion, then I might be completely derailed finding myself furloughed at home and having to figure out Zoom and Teams. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right dream or end goal for me, or that there’d never been any point thinking about it. Rather, I just needed to bear in mind there were always going to be other factors outside my control.
Performance goals, therefore, become useful in providing a specification. In other words, we can define what success will be like.
For example, if I work in customer relations and in order to be considered for that managerial promotion I need to really be on top of my own caseload, then some kind of SMART goal around caseload management could provide a really useful focus.
The difference is that this performance goal is not created in isolation, it is derived from a long-term aim (dream/end goal, call it what you will) and it is designed to give me something more within my control that increases my odds of success.
Covid-19 and lockdowns may have scuppered my chances for promotion this year, but keeping on top of my caseload is not likely to have done my prospects any harm and, if I keep it up, I’ll still be seen as a strong performer when any new opportunities emerge.
I read recently that some athletes preparing for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo have become completely thrown by its cancellation, other have refocused on their training goals and simply adjusted their timeframes. It’s the same idea.
As we’ve seen, performance goals need to be properly described using SMART or one of its many variants, making sure they are also positive, challenging and understandable.
Ultimately though, I must bring my focus to the here and now and deploy a number of processes to be the mechanism for my success. To follow the example through, it's only by effectively using the customer relations processes that I can achieve my performance goal and thus give myself a chance of achieving my dream.
I need to be calling clients regularly with updates, putting accurate data into the database, escalating any complaints promptly and so on. I can narrow my focus and do these things with a sense of purpose day in, day out irrespective of Covid-19 or whatever’s going on in the wider world.
These processes are not just mindless tasks, however – they are what I need to be doing to achieve my performance goals, which in turn have been derived from my long-term, dream aim of achieving promotion. We need all three types of aim to provide a compelling vision of change and create movement towards it, because:
- Without a dream or a reason why we can give up when things get tough.
- Without performance goals we can waste time on tasks that do not lead anywhere.
- Without performance goals we can also get discouraged as the dream can seem too far away. They provide milestones.
- Without processes we do not know how to move towards our aims and goals little by little, day by day.
I remain in favour of setting goals and other business planning disciplines notwithstanding the fact that Covid-19 drove a bus over 2020 and had us all wondering whether there was any point. Goals are still useful, I think, but must be seen as just one type of aim – not set in a vacuum or without thought to what might happen with regard changes in the big picture. (This is what my colleague argued, creating a narrative of ongoing success, not slavishly ticking off SMART criteria).
If goals have been set against the backdrop of something worthwhile and similarly used to identify key tasks and processes then they have served to provide focus and add value, even if we have to switch tracks. Even in these strange times, we surely still need to be doing this?
After all, as a wise man once said, “if we don’t know where we’re going, we’ll end up somewhere else!”
Interested in this topic? Read Effective coaching is a matter of perspective.