Dr. Deming long ago stated in his 14 obligations of management: “Eliminate numerical goals, numerical quotas and management by objectives.” I think he was right then, and is right now. A goal can help set the scope of the effort. If you are aiming for 2% improvement different strategies may make sense than if you are aiming at 50% improvement. But that type of use is rare. The problem with goals is what actually happens in organizations. They create serious systemic problems and should be avoided (other than in setting the scope). They are deeply ingrained in the way many people think, but we would be better if we could eliminate the use of goals, as they are used now (mainly as arbitrary numerical goals).
Rather than reflexively relying on goals, argues Max Bazerman, a Harvard Business School professor and the fourth coauthor of “Goals Gone Wild,” we might also be better off creating workplaces and schools that foster our own inherent interest in the work. “There are lots of organizations where people want to do well, and they don’t need those goals,” he says. Bazerman and others hold up Google as an example of a company that manages to do this, in part by explicitly setting aside time for employees to pursue their own projects and interests.
Today, as the economic situation upends millions of lives, it is also forcing the reexamination of millions of goals – not only the revenue targets of battered firms, but the career aims of workers and students, and even the ambitions of the newly installed administration. And while it never feels good to give up on a goal, it may be a good time to ask which of the goals we had set for ourselves were things we really needed to achieve, and which were things we only thought we should – and what the difference has been costing us.