Goals are for losers

In a study of organizational change, researchers divided the efforts into three groups based on out come: most successful (top third), the average (the middle third), and the least successful (the bottom third).

The chart below shows that the top third and the bottom third set goals with similar frequency.


A typical goal would be to increase revenue by 10%. Setting goals doesn’t distinguish successful change efforts from unsuccessful ones.

The next chart shows why goals as we traditionally think of them are for losers.


The successful change efforts that had goals that were based on behaviors. Another way of saying this, is a goal that focuses on behavior is better than an outcome based goal.

If your goal is to lose 10lbs, instead set a process based goal to go to the gym 3 times a week.

This info comes from Switch. I’ve written another blog post that outlines the framework. I’m doing a deeper dive and hope to have more to share soon.

Below is the passage I have referenced (p. 62-63)

In a pioneering study of organizational change, described in the book The Critical Path to Corporate Renewal, researchers divided the change efforts they’d studied into three groups: the most successful (the top third), the average (the middle third), and the least successful (the bottom third). They found that, across the spectrum, almost everyone set goals: 89% of the top third and 86% of the bottom third. A typical goal might be to improve inventory turns by 50%. But more successful change transformations were more likely to set behavioral goals: 89% of the top third vs only 33% of the bottom third. For instance, a behavioral goal might be that project teams would meet once a week and each team would include at least on representative of every functional area. Until you can ladder your way down from a change idea to a specific behavior, you’re not ready to lead a switch. To create a movement, you’ve got to be specific and concrete.


Lower the bar

Source: sportxcel.org

I am reading yet another fabulous book and I can’t help myself from sharing. Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath, helps us understand how to create change when change is really hard.

Have you ever said to yourself, “why won’t he change?” or “why won’t they change?” Or have you attempted to create change with your team, with a group at work, in your marriage, or with you children and come away frustrated? If so, you should read Switch. (aside: this book has inspired me to teach a change seminar at work for my team and others that are interested. I will share the results with my readers)

Chip and Dan lay out a straightforward framework for creating change. It’s so easy, you could create a checklist or guide to outline what you want to change. (If one doesn’t already exist somewhere on the internet).

One item I want to share with you from the book is the idea of “lowering the bar.” We often approach change thinking that a radical shift is what will motivate people (including ourselves). In the business world, managers are fond of mentioning things like “burning platforms” and “burning the ships.” I’ll admit that I’ve used this tactic before to try and motivate people.

Take the burning platform – this comes from the story of an oil rig explosion that happened in the mid 80s. The rig caught fire and those who survived the explosion where forced to chose between staying on the rig and burning to death, or jumping to an almost certain death in the ocean (which was also on fire) 150ft below. The term “burning platform” is used often, but it’s not a great analogy.

First, why is our platform on fire? As the typical worker sits in her cube, telling her that the platform is on fire won’t go very far. She doesn’t smell smoke. This doesn’t motivate change.

Second, who wants to take a plunge into a fiery ocean? Can we provide a slightly better alternative to 150ft jump to an almost certain death? Again, you will not get people lining up to jump from your burning platform.

Now, I’m not saying that there are not real burning platforms out there. Blockbuster was a burning platform. Kodak was a burning platform. My point is simply, people don’t typically change just because they are forced to do something very hard. Change happens because we want to change and because it is easy.

I was struck by the idea of “lowering the bar.” I often think about making targets aspirational, but study after study shows that giving people a path to the change and showing them clearly where they are going is the way to drive change.

Think about losing twenty pounds. You would begin to think about all the exercise, the cookies you will give up, the salad that you’ll need to eat, etc. What if instead you thought, all I need to do is set out my workout clothes every night, so that I am ready to go in the morning? Or, all I need to do is coordinate with a friend to run tomorrow morning?

You, your team and your company is more like to make a small change. The next time you need to impact change, think about lowering the bar to get change moving.