Why planning breaks down and fails [10 common goal-setting mistakes]

Goal-setting mistakes are the root cause of most strategic planning failures. This week, a big red flag is being waved calling attention to 10 common errors.

Installment 6 in a 10-part series by Bruce Anderson, business management consultant in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area

Goal-setting has been a constant companion throughout my career. As an ad agency owner I and my staff set and met goals for our company and were accountable to our clients for helping them hit their goals. As a C-level executive in two publicly traded companies, I found that achieving goals directly impacted performance for shareholders.

I always loved creating and placing advertising for multi-market retailers because they were intensely goal-oriented and operated in fiercely competitive environments, and the sales results arrived quickly. The stakes were high because if the ads didn’t work you were on the hot seat with your client. One of my mentors told me early on, “In the agency business, we start losing the client the day we get them, and we’re constantly being judged on how we perform against goals we don’t create.”

In my consulting practice, I now work closely with clients to help them approach goal-setting more effectively. My counsel is drawn from the wisdom gained by both observing success and analyzing failure.

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Goal-setting is intended to strategically align workforces with objectives and motivate staff to meet and exceed expectations. It’s an essential part of planning and can be a very positive and powerful practice when it effectively jump-starts and fuels the performance drivers in an organization. But it’s tricky ground. Much like navigating a minefield, missteps can prove very costly.

Goal-setting mistakes are the root cause of most strategic planning failures. To elevate your chances of success, it’s important to remain keenly aware of the risks and to do your best to maneuver carefully through the ever-present dangers.

A big red flag is being waved this week calling attention to these 10 critical errors that commonly occur with goal-setting:

1. The goals are way too ambitious. They’re basically DOA because they’re viewed as totally unrealistic and unattainable.

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2. The goals are set independently, established in a vacuum, then handed down by leaders who didn’t seek input from staff. The goal-setters are considered to be completely out of touch with those they’ll hold accountable for achieving their goals.

3. There are too many goals – seen as unnecessarily complex and overwhelming.

4. The goals are ill-conceived and/or ill-timed given specific marketplace conditions and/or emerging competitive situations and pressures.

5. The goals are too fluffy or fuzzy. They need to be very specific and measurable.

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6. The technology required to consistently report out the data to properly monitor and measure progress against the goals isn’t available or sufficient; or, even worse, there’s no transparency and the data are withheld intentionally.

7. The incentives attached to the goals are underwhelming. The rewards aren’t believed to be equal to the energy and effort demanded of the staff to produce the goals.

8. There isn’t enough manpower to realize the goals.

9. The timelines aren’t realistic and there’s no flexibility in the deadlines to meet the goals.

10. Assigned budgets aren’t sufficient to attain the goals in the designated time frame.

That’s an ominous list and serious consequences can accompany these mistakes.

Failure is demoralizing. It triggers negative emotions that degrade performance. The disappointment and sense of under-achievement causes people to get frustrated and cynical. They begin questioning anything and everything. Teams break down and relationships are harmed as fingers are pointed. Individuals become angry because they feel their time was wasted and their efforts weren’t appreciated. They become confused and uncertain about their productivity and place in the company. They’re increasingly likely to quit (if they don’t get fired).

As the heat is turned up to achieve goals, an organization can experience unexpected side-effects. There can be an over-focus on one area to the detriment of another. Intrinsic motivation is replaced by Pavlovian behavior. The culture can begin to corrode. The most overbearing environments can even produce a rise in risky and unethical behaviors, as evidenced in the Wells Fargo account fraud scandal. Now there’s even discussion in academic circles about whether the damaging effects of incentive-based goal-setting may outweigh the benefits. I’ll let them sort that out.

I believe you can reach your goals if you set them well. Someone coined the acronym SMART for use in goal-setting (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely). That works for me.

My counsel is to establish realistic short-term goals that are reasonably attainable. Achieve big success through a long string of small victories. Provide constant encouragement and celebrate wins as productive new habits are being formed and a positive culture is being created around achievement. Communicate actively. Share goals and paint a clear picture of what success will look like at designated milestones and on arrival at the destination. Get the incentive structure right and pay early and often.

Think and act horizontally across the organization … you need to get your folks out of their silos. Offer the flexibility to adjust goals and timelines so they’re sustainable. And finally, adopt a strong “Buck stops with me” mentality so there’s never an attempt at any level of management to pass the blame for failure to meet goals.

More next week.

Bruce Anderson is president and CEO of Anderson Consulting. Contact him at ba@acdallas.com and @bruceadfw.