Mission Impossible?

mission impossibleJanuary is the month when many boards reform and begin the task of goal setting for a new year. Staff teams come together with new resolve to be more productive, collegial and collaborative. It’s the time of year when many of us make resolutions and set new goals for ourselves and our congregations.

Congregations today seem to function with two conflicting orientations toward goal-setting. In the 1960’s the research of behavioral scientist Edwin Locke gave us the ever-popular SMART acronym for goal setting. According to Locke, if goals are going to motivate they need to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time Bound. Somewhere I’ve read that the most motivating goals are those that have a 50%  likelihood of attainability. Goals that are perceived as being either too hard or too easy do not result in changed behavior.

More recently our orientation toward goal setting has been influenced by the work of Jim Collins in From Good to Great. Collins found that one of the characteristics of truly great organizations was their orientation toward setting Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG’s). By definition, BHAG’s are not initially perceived as attainable by anyone.

So, how do congregations reconcile these two potentially conflicting theories of goal setting? In my experience, most congregations are not honoring either principle very well. Increasingly I encounter strategic plans that are layered with 20-30 goals that a congregation is trying to accomplish simultaneously. Similarly, I see individual performance agendas where staff members adopt 8-10 individual performance goals in a singular program year.  Although the goals are numerous, they are often not particularly energizing or imaginative. Taken collectively they don’t meet Lock’s objective of attainability, and taken individually they don’t satisfy Collin’s Audacious benchmark.  We can do better.

It’s time to stop that madness and improve our focus. When we assign a congregation, a leadership body, or an individual any more than 2-3 performance goals at a time, we’re basically acknowledging that they are free to pick and choose from a menu of options, none of which is likely to come to fruition. We’re telling them that no one area of focus is more important than another. If we want to hold ourselves and our employees more accountable for the goals we set, we need to narrow the focus. Pick one or two goals and make them bold.

Check out Susan David’s take on this at the Harvard Business Review. 


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