Like many people, I set New Year’s resolutions. I’m a longtime runner, and this year, I challenged myself to hit a certain speed goal on the treadmill by March 31.
In some ways, it was the perfect goal. It was specific (finish an 18-minute progressive speed workout I had clipped from Oxygen magazine). It was measurable (see the 18 minute part—and the treadmill doesn’t lie on speed). It was time-bound (March 31!). Those are the S, M, and T of the SMART acronym people often suggest for goal setting.
It was the other two letters that gave me pause: Was it Achievable (A) and Realistic (one of the commonly cited Rs)?
It’s a tricky question, with ramifications for how people set their own goals, and how organizations set goals for employees as well.
On one end of the spectrum, some goals are in what Michael Hyatt, co-author of Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You Want, calls the delusional zone. "That would be me deciding I want to play in the NBA," he says, or me trying to hit a Paula Radcliffe mile time. Those are just demoralizing. On the other hand, easy goals do little for you, either. "There has to be some element that you might not achieve it. Otherwise it’s not compelling," he says.
Where he advocates hanging out is the "discomfort zone." Goals set there involve "some fear, some uncertainty, some doubt." You have to think through the process for achieving your goal, because it won’t be automatic. You have to be wondering, "Do I really have what it takes?" That’s where the growth takes place.
Managers trying to set goals for employees have to keep this spectrum in mind as well. The idea of "Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals" is great, but if the goals are too audacious, they can lead to cheating. Boring goals, on the other hand, can feel like checking the boxes.
Getting people to set goals that are a stretch but still achievable and realistic requires a highly developmental culture, where employees get opportunities to practice new skills and responsibilities in lower-risk areas of the business, and they get constant feedback. Bob Kegan and Deborah Helsing, two of the authors of the new book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, tell me that at such places, "Everyone is not just invited to but is actually obligated to take these types of stretches and expected to make the types of mistakes that go with them. Everyone can always see lots of examples of how others are struggling and learning in their daily work as well."
This is key: compelling goals that are achievable and realistic will involve some struggle. The nature of struggle is that it does not always go the way you want. To make a long story short, I did not hit my speed goal by March 31. I got close, so perhaps it was achievable and realistic, but I did not quite make it.
The experience, however, reminded me that achieving goals is not the whole point of setting them. Hyatt told me that he had a recent "failure" of a sort too: "I hoped my new book would hit the New York Times bestseller list, and it didn’t." It hit the Wall Street Journal list, and a few others, but not that one. That doesn’t mean there was a problem with the process, though. Without the marketing activities he did in his attempt to hit the New York Times list, "I probably wouldn’t have made it to the other lists," he says. "Don’t hesitate to set a big goal, because as you look backward, you’ll think, ‘How far did I get because I set that goal?’"
In my case, the speed goal itself was somewhat arbitrary: "You just picked a number out of the air," Hyatt reminded me. The larger process still achieved good things. In the course of attempting to get through that 18-minute treadmill workout, I became faster. I set a new personal record for a mile time. That wasn’t my goal, but it is a worthy achievement in its own right. "What you’re really trying to do is optimize your own performance, and trying to grow as a person," he says. "If you stop setting goals, that’s going to stop happening."