Setting big goals is the hallmark of a visionary leader … right? Not necessarily, says Oliver Burkeman, social psychology journalist and author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking (Faber & Faber, 2012), a book that explores the upside of negativity, imperfection and uncertainty.
"We've all heard that setting huge, ambitious goals is the master key to getting ahead," Burkeman says. "In fact, setting goals and carrying out plans to achieve them is how many of us spend most of our waking hours. But chasing after goals can often backfire in horrible ways."
Burkeman cites the example of General Motors, which was losing customers and profits to its Japanese competitors in the early 2000s. Executives set a goal to recapture 29 percent of the American car market. To demonstrate their commitment to the plan, executives wore pins on their lapels with the number 29, and the target of 29 percent was drummed into everyone from salespeople to engineers to public-relations officers.
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"The plan not only failed, it made things worse," says Burkeman. "Executives doubled down on doing everything it took to get to that number. They were funding discount schemes that sent the organization off track. That's what can happen when you're focused on the outcome instead of the process."
Approached with the right perspective, Burkeman says goals can be good. He shares four tips for how entrepreneurs can set goals that move their businesses forward.
1. Be willing to take your eyes off of the prize. The problem with the pursuit of goals, says Burkeman, is when we become so obsessed with hitting the target that we exclude all other options.
"The culture in America encourages over-pursuit -- setting goals that single out a small number of variables to the exclusion of all the others," he says. "But it can backfire. For example, a person might set a goal of becoming a millionaire by the age of 40. He or she might succeed, but achieving that goal may have cost their health or their family because they were too fixated on the target."
2. Become comfortable with uncertainty. "Having no target at all would be unfeasible in terms of running a business," says Burkeman. "But goals should be used more like a guide or compass, moving you in a direction but not to a specific destination. This requires you to become uncomfortable with uncertainty."
Burkeman says goals make people feel safe, secure and certain, but success rarely happens because someone made a plan and stuck to it. "More often, people succeed because they are open to the opportunities they weren't expecting," he says. "And they were willing to move forward into an area of uncertainty."
3. Focus on the journey. Burkeman says small-business owners should set process goals rather than outcome goals. Instead of setting a goal to write a successful book, for example, set a goal to write for a certain number of hours a day. Or focus on the number of leads generated rather than dollar amount of sales made.
"Reward attempts that end in failure," he says. "Failure shouldn't be punished. When it is, it encourages people to play it safe. Instead, look at effort and attempt as being part of the process."
4. Remember why you're in it. Burkeman says it's important to ask yourself why you're in the game in first place, and make sure goals are in alignment.
"You might start a business because you want to create huge company," he says. "I suspect, though, it's because you wanted to create a different life than you would get if you were part of a bigger corporate machine. The life you build might not involve huge riches, but it might allow you to balance work with family."
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