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Misconceptions on Goals in Performance Management

Most of us, in our everyday jobs, find ourselves entrenched in a paradigm that is over one hundred years old. In 1911, Frederick Taylor wrote a book called, “Principles of Scientific Management.” In this book, he describes how management has more knowledge than anyone else working in the company. Consequently, management arranges companies by setting up a process to produce their product and since they have most of the knowledge, (according to Taylor) they assemble the system employees are familiar with. Unfortunately, because management arranges the system, they are the best at manipulating it by directing all employees to do whatever is necessary to manufacture the product and receive positive results.

“It is no use saying, ‘we are doing our best.’ You have to succeed in doing what is necessary.” - Winston Churchill

The theory in, “Principles of Scientific Management,” says there are optimal ways to conduct a process that manufactures products. In addition, in order to be efficient, it’s management's job to find the optimal way a company should run and employees' job to obey their tasks. Taylor promoted a theory called “task management,” where management describes the tasks they want their employees to do as management monitors their employees to make sure tasks are completed correctly. Management monitors employees for the sake of error-free feedback, so all employees work in the same optimal way when completing tasks. Management believes if they show employees the optimal way to finish tasks and enforce all employees to do so, the whole company’s productivity would increase, making more money.

Reintroducing Goals and the Right Way to Use Them

Based on this theory, most of us have an annual performance review and we’re rated on activities/tasks that we were meant to complete. Additionally, when an employee has a meeting with their boss, they discuss the tasks/activities they’re meant to fulfill. The majority of people believe in Taylor’s theory, which means, most often, employees see goals written in a style that carries a verb. And so, people (managers and employees) vocalize their visions on what they wish to achieve based on a certain behavior because they’re focused on tasks. This is unhelpful and misleading because a goal is defined as a “desired or future state,” which means it’s important to describe what that state should look like when the goal is completed versus what actions to take to get there.

  • What parts of speech (noun, adverbs, adjectives. etc.) do you use to describe a state (or condition)?

  • How would you describe the state you are in right now (hot, cold, energized, restless, etc.)?

In any case, the words we use to describe our current state (or future state) are adjectives. Yet, many goals do not use adjectives; instead they use verbs to describe the behaviors of what management would like their employees to do, rather than focusing on the authentic goal (future state).

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” - Ken Blanchard

In order to create authentic goals, the first step is to practice developing goals the way they’re meant to be, as describing a future state. When describing goals using a future state, use the format of an adjective followed by the object of the adjective, a noun (adjective + noun). If the state is multifaceted and there are several characteristics that should be included for a future state, then it’s possible to have more than one adjective. In other words, enforce using the goal in the ‘adjective + noun’ format because this is the correct way to describe a future state.

  1. Here is an example of a personal goal…

    1. My daughter played in a soccer tournament and my goal was, “to have a successful view of her during her soccer tournament.”

In my goal listed above, I use the word ‘successful’ as the adjective, ‘view’ as the noun, and ‘of’ as a prepositional phrase (which ultimately adds more details to the description of my goal). My goal was to achieve my desired state, where I’d have a successful view of my daughter during her soccer tournament.

Try This Exercise!

Try it out! Take a moment to think about a goal you’d like to accomplish and after you’ve thought it through, do your best to describe it in the ‘adjective + noun’ format. Below are some examples of goals written by students in a class we teach at Bridgeport Digital.

  1. Full stomach after food consumption. (Good example!)

    1. ‘Full’ is an adjective.

    2. ‘Stomach’ is a noun.

  2. Plan and take three family trips before August. (Bad example.)

    1. ‘Plan’ and ‘take’ are both verbs.

    2. This goal fails to describe a future state.

  3. Effective leadership. (Good example!)

    1. ‘Effective’ is an adjective.

    2. ‘Leadership’ is a noun.

I’d like to point out once more that because of our indoctrination with the principles of scientific management from 1911, we have been taught to focus on behaviors/activities. Therefore, when we set goals, we instinctively focus on task oriented behavior. It takes time and dedication to change these habits.

“Blame is stupid. Don’t look for bad people; look for bad systems—ones that incentivize bad behavior and rewards poor performance.” ― Jeff Sutherland

Success is in green. Challenge is in yellow. Failure is in red.

Why Agile is Better for Goals in Performance Management

There were studies done by the Standish Group where they looked at the success rate of projects and every year they produced statistics on whether or not they were successful. If we look at the study done in 2018, it shows that on the left (‘Traditional Projects’) only 26% (as seen in green) of projects were successful when judged by certain standards, such as, time management (finishing on time), finances (staying within the budget), and completing all necessary work pertaining to scope. They typically use traditional techniques to run those projects. If you look over to the right, what you’ll see are teams who use scrum methodology, the number nearly doubles because 42% of projects are successful. In yellow, challenge is at 50%, which means they could have gone over budget or failed to deliver the schedule. However, in red, failure is only at 8% making it much lower when we work with agile because agile is about problem-solving and it begins with understanding the gap.

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