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Drifting Goals & What To Do When You’re Not Where You Want To Be

The science of goal setting

We don’t focus enough on how to navigate the space between where we are and where we want to be.
Recently, I was watching the viral video that Will Smith posted regarding failure, and I began thinking about goals; specifically, drifting goals.

In a culture that places a high value on achievement, there is a noticeable tension between setting big-hairy goals and setting goals that you can reasonably attain, given your current situation. On the one hand, goals are supposed to inspire you to reach a level of growth that lights you up. On the other hand, you don’t want to set goals that cause you sustained pain. Where is the balance?

DRIFTING GOALS

With drifting goals, there are two basic reactions to addressing this gap: to either increase your efforts (corrective actions) or to reduce your goal.
In systems thinking, there is a concept, a system archetype, called Drifting Goals. It is an archetype that defines the behavior that occurs when there is a gap between the current state and the desired state. Setting a goal is defining the desired state; the current state is where you are today. The gap is the distance between where you are and where you want to be.

With drifting goals, there are two basic reactions to addressing this gap: to either increase your efforts (corrective actions) or to reduce your goal.

  1. Increase corrective actions – Increasing action reduces the gap by taking additional steps to move your current state closer to your desired state..
  2. Adjust the goal – Moving the goal post closer to your current state will also reduce the gap and has an added benefit of decreasing the pressure to act.

EXAMPLE & THE PROBLEM WITH DRIFTING GOALS

Company A observes an increasing gap between their desired annual sales goal and current sales. The company can:

  • Do more to address the barrier to making more sales (ex: spend more on marketing, hire more salespeople, improve the product quality, obtain better data on prospective customers, etc.).
  • OR the company may decide to reduce the annual sales goal so that it’s closer to the current rate of sales.

One approach focuses on improving the current state and addressing the barriers that are preventing them from getting closer to the goal. The advantage of this approach is that you maintain a “goal standard” and are avoiding a situation where you decide to settle for less than what you want or need. The disadvantage is that corrective action is not always possible and is dependent on capacity: time, people, motivation, money or other resources.

The other approach focuses on adjusting the goal so that it is more attainable, which is defined based on the current state of things. The advantage to this approach is that it not only reduces the gap but also reduces pressure. The disadvantage is that it can result in a culture of “slipping standards” and a consistent pattern of lowering expectations.

SO, WHAT DO YOU DO?

In the gap between where you are and where you want to be, you will learn something that provides much more value to you than the zero-sum game of your next success or failure.
So, what do you do in a situation where the gap between where you are and where you want to be is increasing? Do you focus on setting goals that more attainable? Or do you focus on improving your current state; grinding and hustling to reduce the gap and make up for lost ground? I recommend that you focus more on the gap. We don’t focus enough on how to navigate the space between where we are and where we want to be.

Goal-setting is easy; goal-reaching is work. If you know what you want and you’re good at setting goals, then you understand the importance of defining goals that are S.M.A.R.T (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time-bound). However, even S.M.A.R.T. goals are difficult to reach. On your journey to reaching your goals, there will be delays, failures, pressures, distractions and all manner of shenanigans.

Before adjusting your goals, lowering your expectations or standards, hacking your way to reaching your numbers “hook or crook”, or grinding yourself into a grave, take some time to define your process for navigating the gap between where you are and where you want to be. What does that look like on a day-to-day basis? What are you willing to trade short and long-term for the effort required to reach that goal? How much pressure are you able and willing to take? How do you ensure that you are not harming yourself or others while on this journey to reaching your goals? These are important questions that cannot be answered by motivational speakers, business coaches or well-meaning celebrities like Will Smith. Yes, failure is life. However, it is up to you to learn how to fail properly, within the context of the goal you’re attempting to reach and your current state.

In the gap between where you are and where you want to be, you will learn something that provides much more value to you than the zero-sum game of your next success or failure. Goals are good. Set goals that inspire you to act, don’t be so quick to lower your standards and try to enjoy the journey.

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Kishau Rogers is the editor and founder of The bigThinking Project. The bigThinking Project is a resource center and collaborative innovation project which promotes the principles of systems thinking. Our mission is to empower the next generation of innovators to think bigger, to think better and to create solutions which make significant impact in the areas that matter. Kishau Rogers is an award-winning entrepreneur with over twenty years of experience in the computer science industry. She is a serial entrepreneur having founded and co-founded companies such as Websmith Group, TimeStudy, PeerLoc Inc., and Websmith Studio.

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