Saturday, August 31, 2013

Why goal setting feels abusive and what to do instead

Meaning, Intention and Commitment at Work

A different path to getting what you want


by Darcy Hitchcock, Originially published in 2001 by AXIS Performance Advisors

In the US, one of the most common questions we ask when we meet someone is, "What do you do?" In other words, what do you do for WORK? We spend so much time at work and derive so much personal identity from what we do that it is important to infuse our work with meaning.

This is especially important in today's high-employment workplace if you want to attract good people. And our shift from an industrial economy to one based on knowledge work only underlines this need even more, for we must rely on employees' mental energy, their commitment to the mission and task, to be successful.

All this said, we do not have particularly effective organizational practices to get at this more spiritual dimension of work. Sure, we do visioning, write mission statements, and set goals but these don't come close to embracing the experience of discovering meaning, setting intentions or developing commitment.

In this post we will explore how practices from other venues might be applied at work.

"Leadership is a personal quest you undertake, one based on a mission that troubles your heart."
-- Harriet Rubin, senior writer for FastCompany Magazine

Courtesy Stuart Miles, Freedigitalphotos.net
I started thinking about this when I was working with an organization that offered self-help, self-study courses. One of the psychologists who was writing the training said, "The only way I know to get people to make improvements is to set a goal, make a plan and build in rewards along the way." I responded that her approach would work well for many but would not work for parts of the population. I told her setting goals was a predominately Western concept. She looked at me like I was from Mars. It got me thinking about how much we take goal setting for granted in organizations as The Way to get what we want.

So Marsha and I hosted a think tank on the subject of setting intentions, inviting an ordained minister, a practicing Buddhist, a cancer survivor, and other interesting characters. This newsletter doesn't summarize the results of the think tank as much as it expresses my current musings on the topic as a result of what I learned there. I'm grateful to all those who participated in the think tank for expanding my point of view. 


 Goal Setting
Intention setting
Deals with goals, measures, plans, rewards Deals with personal passions, wishes, reflection, and discovery
Works best when: you know what the end state looks like and you have control over key variables; situations of low uncertainty, stable environments; when top-down directives can get you what you need Works best when you may not know what the end-state should look like and/or you don't have a lot of control; dynamic/chaotic situations; when you need to tap into personal passions/ commitment to get what you need.
Assumes you can make things happen Assumes you can let things happen

Goal setting: One path to getting what you want

For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to clump a bunch of practices under the heading of goal setting: strategic planning, visioning, writing mission statements, setting goals, writing action plans. If you get down to the root, all these practices attempt to influence the future; they help you get what you want. The basic idea is figure out what you want, make a plan, work the plan, and if you're really advanced, plan ways to reward yourself along the way.

It's a behaviorist's approach to management.So what's wrong with goal setting?Don't get me wrong; I'm not against goal setting as an organizational or personal practice. It is often useful to set a measurable goal, develop a set of actions that will lead you there, and reward your progress. This practice works especially well when two conditions are true:
  • You know what the end-state should look like and 
  • You have control over most of the critical factors for success. 

Losing weight, running a marathon, planning a merger or releasing a new product all are examples when goal setting can be helpful: set the goal, make a plan, work the plan.

However, there are many situations when the above two criteria are not met. In today's turbulent business climate, how can you know where you should be in five or ten years? And even if you set a plan, there are numerous factors outside your control that can throw you off: new technologies, an economic downturn, a vigorous competitor, new regulations, etc.

Who was it that said, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"? When all we have is goal setting, then we tend to use this same process whenever we want to influence the future. But this can be counterproductive.

I've often noticed that some people shut down when you ask them to set measurable goals. Suddenly, they're afraid. "Am I going to be evaluated on this? Is this part of my performance appraisal? What happens if I can't meet my goal?" Creativity, innovative thinking, and risk taking quickly devolve into safe, I-already-accomplished-it-anyway goals. And if you persist, it can feel abusive.

Can you really expect your sales reps to set sales targets for the next two years when many of the success factors (the economy, the advertising budget, new product releases) are out of their control?

The common alternative, setting process goals (e.g., number of sales calls per week) can result in people doing what you're measuring them on, even if that's no longer what's best for the company. Used in the wrong situation, goal setting has a constipated feel to it: straining, forcing, teeth-gritting. It's about making things happen instead of letting things happen. It can grind out the joy, the discovery, the openness to new opportunities. It may seem obvious, but goal setting doesn't always work. We put so much faith into it, that this fact is often denied. The next set of practices I will share with you also are not fail-safe. But I believe there are situations where they are more likely to get you what you want than goal setting will.

Intention setting: Another way to get what you want

Instead of making things happen, you can sometimes let things happen. This may seem "over the top" for many of you, but there are many who believe and research to support that setting an intention does, in fact, seem to work. Manifesting what you want as a thought can run the gamut from expressing a whim, making a wish or saying a sacred prayer. Unlike goal setting, you don't create a lengthy action plan; instead, you let it go and wait to see what comes back."The most powerful tool in the arsenal of a person who truly wants to make a significant difference in the world is intent. The power of intention and commitment cannot be overestimated. The intention we speak of here is not what many learned early on in their careers -- the commitment to 'make it happen' -- in effect seizing fate by the throat and doing whatever it takes to succeed.

This commitment is another, deeper aspect of intention -- it begins with the way we think about the world, about life itself, and the role we play in life's unfolding. In this way of being, first we see the world as fundamentally open, dynamic, interconnected and full of possibilities -- possibilities that stand in need of us."-- Claus Otto Scharmer, Society for Organizational Learning, MIT Sloan School of Management

Perhaps a personal story will make the point. About 20 years ago, I was moving into a new house, one I was purchasing with my husband-to-be. As I was unpacking boxes, putting books into the bookcase, a piece of paper fell from one of the books onto the floor. It was an intention setting exercise I had completed several years before which I had long since forgotten. It described our new house in eerie detail: 2500 square feet, chalet style, in the trees, on five acres. The only part of the description that wasn't accurate was the town I had listed (and for those of you who know my mud slide story, I now wish I had purchased a house someplace else!)Many of you probably have similar stories. That's why we have phrases like, "Watch out what you wish for," because wishes often seem to come true. And according to Paul Pearsall of Wishing Well, there are numerous scientific studies showing that wishing, intention and prayer can, in fact, affect outcomes. One of the more famous studies involved people praying for patients in another state. The prayed-for patients as a group recovered faster than the control group, even though they didn't know they were the focus of prayers. Spooky, huh?

There are many possible explanations how this works. Having a clear mental picture of what you want undoubtedly makes you more observant of opportunities. Scientists involved with quantum physics and chaos theory have discovered that, at least on the quantum level, intention and observation can affect experimental results, so perhaps our thoughts do manifest themselves. One person I know brags about her ability to conjure up parking spaces, calling it "popping a quiff" ("Quiff" is how they pronounce qwf for quantum wave function.) And of course, there are spiritual explanations as well.

"When you broadcast such an intention, there is very little else you have to do. The broadcast of intention goes out and makes it happen."--Srikumar Rao, professor of business creativity at Columbia and Long Island University

Deepak Chopra is probably the most recognizable proponent of this intention setting approach. In his book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, he explains that we don't have to work so hard to get what we want. He encourages people to be reflective (why do I want this?), to consider the consequences (will this bring fulfillment to myself and others?), make a list of desires and review them every day, and accept uncertainty as an essential ingredient, remaining open to the "infinity of choices."

According to research documented in Wishing Well, "well-wishers" experience the following benefits:improved immune response reduced stress being more forgiving better able to deal with challenges more connected and loving towards others Even if this is hogwash or just the equivalent of the placebo effect, might it be worth it to practice wishing or intention setting anyway?

Marsha and I have been experimenting with corporate intention setting, what we refer to (a little tongue-in-cheek) as "strategic planning by wishing." And our track record for getting our big wishes for each year is much better than for all the goals we've set (specific revenue targets, for example). We've come to trust in the process.Intention setting seems to fit well when goal setting doesn't. Earlier I said that goal setting works well when you know what the end-state should look like. Intention setting can help you discover an end-state. (For example, last year, Marsha and I wished to become clear about what role we could play in the sustainability movement....a wish that came true.) I also said that goal setting works well when you have a lot of control over key variables.

Again, intention setting brings with it a philosophy to let events unfold. It embraces the mystery of serendipity and invites you to explore the potential meaning of situations as they present themselves. Whether you believe in a spiritual force or not, this practice of reflection helps you see relationships that you might ignore if you were narrowly focused on your goal.

According to Wishing Well, collective wishes have stronger power than individual wishes. What would it be like to make a collective wish with everyone in your organization? Imagine the process of discovering your shared wish, of voicing it together, and then periodically reflecting on the bounty that wish evoked. What an interesting ceremony that would be!

In Wishing Well, Pearsall presents a five step cycle which I have laid out in linear form so you can compare it to our typical approach in business on the right:


 Wishing involves...
Goal setting involves...
Purpose Mission statement
Meaning Goals
Compassion Tasks
Serenity Accountability
Delight Rewards



The two lists have a completely different feel to them. Both start with what you want and end with the natural consequences of achieving that. But the experience of living through these two lists is entirely different. How would you like to live in an organization that did more of the list on the left? How do you set an intention? So what do I DO? What would a replicable business process for intention setting look like? In the following process, I am blending practices from intention setting (which we have discussed at length) and visualization (which is used a lot by Olympic athletes and cancer patients).1.

How to Set Intentions

1. Uncover your passion(s) 

This involves both knowledge about yourself (who am I? what am I passionate about?) and the world (what needs are there that I can fulfill?) In The Cathedral Within, Bill Shore, the founder of Sharing our Strength, says the main event that propels people to act on their passions is discovering that they have something unique in themselves that can contribute to a solution. So you cannot discover this in isolation, on a mountain top.

Discovering your purpose(s) in life comes from the interaction between who you are and what is going on in the world. Most people are aware of themes or threads that connect most of their life, making them who they are: a love of nature, a passion for figuring out how things work, a love of teaching, a passion for music. Quiet your mind and discover who is behind the chatter.

In Callings, Gregg Levoy counsels us to not look for one calling but many. Ask, "In how many ways can I..."

"Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware."
-- Martin Buber

2. Discover your intention 

Next you have to figure out what you want to have happen. This may seem like an easy step but it is often not. Examine your motivation. Why do you want this? Be aware of the deeper need behind your intention. Sometimes this process takes minutes, sometimes a lifetime."You become extremely clear about what it is you want to do. Why is it you want to do what you do? How is it a reflection of your values? How does it relate to your unique purpose in life? What is it that you want to accomplish in society? Think about all the inherent contradictions that are there and then, if possible, reconcile them."--Srikumar Rao, professor of business creativity at Columbia and Long Island University3. Visualize it manifest -- If your intention has a clear end-state, it can help to visualize it in some detail. What will it look like, smell like, feel like? What will you be wearing when you do this work? What will your customers or clients do? Where will your intention show up in tangible form in letters or policies or purchasing decisions?

"I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It's like a color movie."
Jack Nicklaus, professional golfer

4. Create an icon 

Create some visible, tangible artifact that symbolizes your vision. It might be a collage, an object, a phrase. Place this where you can contemplate it daily. (One governmental agency in New Mexico summarized their strategic plan into a picture and printed it on mousepads for every employee.)

5. Put your intention "out there" 

It seems to help if you take tangible actions, do something to stir the universe. Many consultants talk about "serendipitous marketing." If you just sit in your office, no new business comes your way. But if you get out and talk to people, work will come your way (but usually from somewhere else, unrelated to your conversations.) So talk to people about your intention, take some action toward it. You don't need a detailed action plan but invest some energy into your intention. Make a verbal commitment. Say, "I am ready and am willing to take whatever is next."

6. Reflect on what happens 

Finally, be observant of what comes next and how you feel about what happens. View obstacles as part of your journey. Stay firm in your intention but flexible in your means.

"Yet, in this state of intention we must have the integrity, as Francisco Varela puts it, to stand in a 'state of surrender,' knowing that whatever we need at the moment to meet our destiny, will be available to us. It is at this point that we alter our relationship to the future. When we operate with this kind of intention and in this state of open commitment, we see ourselves as an essential part of the unfolding of the universe, of life itself and we seek to bring an unborn possibility into reality as 'it desires,' to serve humankind, not to serve our own narrow selfish desires."
-- Claus Otto Scharmer, MIT Sloan School of Management

Resources

Leadership in the New Economy: Sensing and actualizing emerging futures by Claus Otto Scharmer. Excellent intellectual thinking, dovetailing intention setting with a business context. <http://www.ottoscharmer.com>

Callings: Finding and following an authentic life by Gregg Levoy. Great book on how to discover your callings (plural) along with the upside and downside.

Wishing Well: Making your every wish come true by Paul Pearsall, Ph.D. Parts of the book are annoyingly redundant but it provides an interesting review of the research and helpful rules to guide your wishing.

The Mental Edge: Maximize your sports potential with the mind-body connection, by Kenneth Baum. While the book is written with athletes in mind, the lessons about how to use relaxation and mental rehearsals to improve performance are easily adapted to other areas of our life.

Tibetan Wisdom for Western Life, by Joseph Arpaia, MD and Lobsang Rapgay, Ph.D. Since attention is an important part of intention, this book provides clear instructions for how to improve your ability to concentrate and meditate.

The Passion Plan: A step by step guide to discovering, developing and living your passion by Richard Chang. Easy to follow instructions and activities for individuals that would work as well with groups.

Visioning: Ten Steps to Designing the Life of Your Dreams by Lucia Capacchione, Ph.D., ATR. If you want some ideas about how to get out of your head to discover what's in your heart, this book has some nice exercises, including making a collage, writing with your non-dominant hand, etc. Many can be done as groups.

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