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Why Goals Don’t Work


Goal setting is often a broken system and KPI management is still unresolved. But if we can understand why goals don’t work, then we will be able to re-position them to ensure success.

Image of a woman with question marks above her head wondering why goals don't work

We all know, philosophically, that life is goal oriented.  In order to sustain our lives, we need to have the goal of maintaining life.  Life has to be the standard by which we determine what actions to take to maintain it, to sustain it, to increase it.  Any action to the contrary, quite simply, is courting a standard opposite and contrary to life.

So if the goal is life, then the further question is, what determines the type of life that is desired?  In other words, we need to determine the type of life that we want to first achieve, then maintain and sustain, in order for it to have value to us, in order for us to be successful in achieving it.

What is the foundation of determining the type of life we desire?  It isn’t the desire itself.  Desire doesn’t teach us what to desire in order to attain a successful life.

Nope!  To achieve a successful life, we need to define success, we need to discover how to achieve that success, and we need to understand how to sustain that success, and evolve it, as all life is about change and evolution.

Okay!  Now what on earth has this to do with goals and KPI management?  Hah!  I thought you’d never ask, and I bet you thought …well, let’s leave what you probably thought unsaid…heh heh.

We want to improve our business.  We do that by creating strategic goals.  We accomplish those goals through tactical plans, and then…we’re done.

Right?  Wrong!

As in life, we need to define what success looks like for our business, and often it involves at least one key performance indicator.  And, we figure, okay, if we just achieve this goal, we will be successful.

And therein lies the problem, the myth, the lie…yes, the lie.  If we want to be successful in business, we don’t just set goal after goal after goal…we have to define what success looks like, and define the foundation, the theme, the “culture” that will support it.

KPI management really means we are managing to what we have determined are acceptable service levels and acceptable measurements to tell us we are achieving our goals.  As long as we meet our KPIs we should be successful then, right?  Nope.  Sorry.

Which brings up another point.  I don’t like the words “company culture”…again, that phrase conjures up visions of a board meeting wherein folks are saying things like, “how can we create a company culture that does x and y?”  In other words, these folks have a goal of creating a particular company culture.  And what happens once the goal is met?  Nothing.  We figure, okay, we’re done.  We met that goal.  And we expect this newly created “company culture” to just sort of maintain itself…hmmmm

Nope.  The idea behind continued success is to live and work thematically.  (Get it?  The “idea” … “thematically”?  You know, a theme is an idea…?  Oh never mind, just keep reading.)

The idea that folks forgot about when creating and managing to KPIs for success and setting goals for improvement, is the idea that we must live within a larger picture, underscore and support our success and achievements, with a theme.  A theme is the big picture idea underscoring the motivation, the idea, behind the goal.  The theme for our business success might be, to provide a source of value for “x” to our customers.  In order to do that, we can’t just set a goal and once accomplished, think that we have attained success and now can just manage to that.

It doesn’t mean defining a certain set of criteria, let’s say, KPIs and then managing to that set and saying, okay we have attained success and now can just manage to that.

Nope.  Working under the guidance of a theme is a lot like working to a mission statement.  The theme of your business, its purpose, its mission statement (remember those?) define the big picture idea of what success looks like, and it does not stop at the achievement of finite goals and KPIs.

Achieving the success of our ideas, our themes, our purposes, our visions, our missions, our definitions of overall success, means we are constantly looking for ways to improve our products and services.  We are defining a set of criteria against which to measure performance (KPIs), and then constantly testing those KPIs, not just for accuracy, but for relevancy.

As our businesses change, and the world and technologies evolve, so must our goals and internal measurements in order to maintain the success of our theme and our mission.  One never finishes achieving a mission, unless the mission is a finite goal.  Instead, one lives the mission; one lives the theme.  When people diet to lose weight, they have a goal in mind, and once achieved, they say “okay.  I’m done,” and then wonder why it is so easy to regain the weight.  Instead, to be successful, if one lives by the theme of a healthy lifestyle, eating right, exercising, etc. to achieve and maintain good health, then the results become permanent, instead of fleeting.  One must commit to the theme underscoring the desire in order to achieve success and maintain it.

That’s the key here.  You can achieve success in almost anything…maintaining that success requires thematic living, purpose-driven foundations…a commitment to purpose and action to ensure continued success, not just the attainment of meeting particular KPIs, but the theme of continually improving those KPIs and ensuring current measurement criteria are tested in themselves for relevancy and application, which in turn support continued success.

It doesn’t mean merely achieving finite goal after finite goal.  Goals are tangible and important stepping stones to measure success and track results.  But the continuation of achieving these goals is to be found in a clear theme and purpose driven vision stressing excellence in all endeavors as its core mission, defining what success looks like at each core level, and then committing to a never-ending cycle of thought, analysis, and action to maintain and sustain success.

KPIs are not goals, rather they are tools, and those tools must be sharpened, tested, and relevant.  In a changing world and competitive business climate, tools help us achieve success, but only if they are the right tools, and the right tools might be different tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year.

If we operate by a theme, instead of under an umbrella of static goals and KPIs, we can at least give ourselves a chance to be open to changing the tools (KPIs) we use, and that gives us a chance to ensure we always have the right tools ready and available in order to maintain excellence.


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