Should goals be based around outcomes, or based around processes?
Hmm. There are three common views on this.
One is that all goals must be outcome based. It doesn’t matter how much you try if you don’t actually achieve the desired outcome.
Another view is that people are too obsessed with outcomes and need to focus more on the process. This is captured in a lot of eastern-based philosophies that tell us to this exact moment is all we have so enjoy the present. Too much obsession about future results blocks our ability to grow and uncover hidden opportunities.
But most advisers on goal setting, myself included, advocate a balance. There are some times when you want to base your goals around outcomes and other times around processes.
But are there any guidelines about when to use one approach vs. the other? I think there are.
What Are Process-Goals?
Process based goals are best when you are taking on a new goal in an area where you aren’t already skilled or experienced.
Think of process-based goals as habits or activities. Ultimately, you expect those habits to lead to outcomes but initially your goal should be simply to develop the habit itself! Once you have the habit down, that's when you'll turn your focus to the outcomes those habits are intended to produce.
Let’s take a common one: getting into shape. When you are just starting out, you simply need to get into the habit of eating better and exercising more.
An example goal could be, “For the next three months, I am going to get to the gym three times a week for at least 45 minutes each time, and I’m going to do these types of exercises: x, y, z. Additionally, I will eliminate all beer and twinkies from my diet.”
It’s still measureable and timebound. But notice there is no specified outcome – no amount of fat lost or muscle gained, even thought that’s really your long-term goal – to lose fat and/or gain muscle.
Or let’s say you are trying to learn how to do computer programming. If you know nothing about how to do it, you can’t possibly set up a realistic outcome goal. Initially, you need to set up some process-based goals. For example, spending a certain amount of time a week working on examples in a guidebook. You can’t even set up an outcome goal about when to finish the book because you have no idea how long it will take! You’re too new to the subject matter. And as you know, all good goals have a time-based component.
What Are Outcome-Goals?
Now eventually, once you're more experienced in something, then you switch to outcome driven goals. Outcome based goals almost disregard the process to get there - all that matters is the outcome!
So, if you're really already skilled at computer programming, you don't really need to have a process-driven thing of “I'm going to code for 4 hrs everyday for the next week”. You can jump to outcome based goals like “I will write a program in C++ that models the swine flu outbreak over the next 12 months allowing for up to 5 different input variables, and will complete this code bug-free and user tested by May 12th.”
And going back to the fitness example, if you have already been working out and eating well, and have some baseline of how much fat you have lost or muscle you have gained, is it enough to stick to a goal based solely around showing up at the gym?
No! You're already experienced. You don't need to learn the process, you don't need to develop the habit. You need an outcome. And in that case, outcome-driven goals are the most appropriate. For example “By May 15 I will weigh 170 lbs and be at 15% bodyfat”.
A Short Quiz
So which of these short goal statements are process-based and which are outcome-based?
- I am promoted to Sr. Account Manager by June 30
- Every day, I'll brush my teeth after lunch
- Whenever I eat out with friends, I will not eat the bread that comes to the table and I will only order water to drink
- By May 31, I will fit into a size 10 pair of Levis
- At my weekly book club meeting, when Joan starts getting obnoxious, I will count to 10 before responding.
Answers: outcome, process, process, outcome, process
Now, look at your own goals (you have them written down, right???). Put a little O or P next to each one after you determine whether each is a process-based goal or an outcome-based goal.
Corollary: I often talk about Major Goals and Minor Goals (and even mini-Goals). For results-based Major Goals, it is still critical to have many minor or mini-goals to support it. The bigger the goal, the more important those minor goals become. They give you feedback along the way to make sure you are really on your path to achieving the major goal. And regardless of the type of Major Goal (process- or outcome-based), your minor goals can be a mix of process and outcome types.
p.s. You might see me and others refer to outcome-based goals as “results-based goals” by mistake. They are certainly synonyms, but outcome has the connotation of being a byproduct of specific, intentional effort towards a conclusion, whereas result connotes a certain about of passivity. Linguistic expertise aside, I will do my best to use “outcome” – correct me if I slip!
Any discussion of goal setting would be incomplete without mentioning the SMART framework. SMART goals stand for Specific, Measureable, Action-based, Realistic, and Timebound.
Or is it Stretch, Meaningful, Achievable, Results-Oriented, and Timely?
Or maybe the A stands for Agreed-upon? Or maybe…
“Ah, whatever. This is too confusing. I’ll just set my goals the way I always have. Which means I won’t really do it well.”
Unfortunately, you see this happen too often. A cute acronym gets butchered by well-meaning managers and self-help gurus. And what was designed to speed effectiveness ends up becoming a road block and maybe even the butt of a joke (I’ve been in meetings where someone next to me, bored with the lecturer telling them how to set goals, ends up finding some really hilarious word substitutions you wouldn’t want to show your kids).
While it’s easy to remember SMART, it’s hard to remember what each letter stands for. And even if you do, it gets even harder when you’re writing your goals to make sure you’ve satisfied each criterion.
Let’s Simplify This A Bit
I’m going to help you simplify this. The kernel of this idea came from a great business podcast called ManagerTools, so I credit them with the simplicity.
All you need for good goals is to make sure they are measurable and timebound. That’s it. The rest is common sense.
Every goal has to be measurable and every goal has to have a time-based deadline.
If they are truly measureable, they’ll be specific enough and certainly they’ll be results oriented (you are measuring the results, right?).
Timebound remains important because it tells you when to measure. And we all know that goals set to be achieved “someday” are less likely to happen.
As for the possible SMART interpretations of “realistic” and “stretch” and “achievable” – why would you ever want to limit them? Some goals should be realistic and some should be challenging. Forcing every goal into one of these buckets is lame.
And goals should be easy to remember. Encumbering them with extra words, just so that satisfy S.M.A.R.T. (whatever they stand for), reduces their effectiveness.
If you have staff that report to you, one sure-fire way to get them to roll their eyes is to ask them if their goals are SMART. It’s a bit patronizing really.
Try it right now. Pick an area in your life that’s important to you. Any area…
Now, what would you like to accomplish in that area? Start by trying to satisfy every SMART criterion. I’ll wait…
Done? Ok, how hard was it? How long did it take?
Now pick a different area in your life. Got it in mind? Now, what do you want to accomplish in that area? But this time, use just the M and the T – make it something you can measure and give it a deadline.
Done? How long did that one take?
Look at the two goals? Is the SMART goal any better than the MT goal?
I bet not. I bet that the MT goal took a lot less effort and time and may actually be superior in terms of the way it’s worded – so that you actually achieve what you want to. Do this enough times – say, for 10 goals - and you’ll be convinced that nobody needs the S, A, and R.
Today’s post is a quick salute to other great articles/podcasts on goal setting. A common theme that I’ve picked out is that RESOLUTIONS ARE NOT GOALS!
Please read these over – you’ll gain an appreciation for goal setting beyond my own slant and you are sure to be inspired!
This is a good one because it’s a audio – listen online. However, I think his approach is a little off. His 5 rules are a variation on the SMART system, and in an upcoming article I’m going to simplify that for you.
2) From the master, Brian Tracy: http://www.briantracy.com/blog/general/planning-your-year/
This is inspiring and his 7-step process is better than “rules”; it’s a method you can actually make use of.
3) In the fitness world, I love Tom Venuto: http://www.burnthefatblog.com/archives/2009/12/a_new_fitness_challenge_for_20.php
I’m not including this to get you to buy his, book, but rather because he’s the best I know of for helping to set the right fitness goals. But if you do decide you want to purchase his book, I’d love it if you did it through my affiliate link here.
4) Tim Ferriss is a superstar, not really focused on goal-setting per se, but this is one of his best posts: http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2008/06/19/why-bigger-goals-less-competition-plus-eco-bounty-winners/
It’s an excerpt from his book and highlights how you can win big by having bigger goals than you might think.
5) On the financial side, I love the Get Rich Slowly blog. However, I’m gotta slam his goal setting technique for 2010 on http://www.getrichslowly.org/blog/2010/01/01/happy-new-year-my-one-goal-for-2010/.
I love the fact that he’s got a single biggest goal for the year. But it’s so big that he needs to define intermediary goals (milestone goals) along the way. He’s a little squishy on having goals that are truly measureable and timebound.
6) And then there’s my own fitness site and a recent article I wrote there: http://worldfitnessnetwork.com/2009/12/new-years-resolutions-bah/ .
Have you read other sites that have really good messages for goal setting? I’m totally fine with you dropping their links here!
For most things in life, you have to fail – and fail many times – before you achieve your goal. Sometimes it means sticking to your goal and trying many, many times. Occasionally it means trying something, and if it fails, switching gears to try it differently or try something new.
You may have heard the mantra “fail often and fail quickly” – the point being that you have to stretch yourself, expand your boundaries. Doing so will accomplish many things:
- You’ll try more things – if you aren’t afraid to fail, you’ll attempt more; if you fail quickly, you’ll have more total attempts which means more overall successes
- You’ll learn to stop wasting time on efforts that aren’t worth it – if that goal isn’t that important to you you’ll stop after the first time you fail; if it is important to you, you’ll keep trying
- You’ll learn from your mistakes (yes, that’s a cliché) – every time you fail, if you’re smart, you learn something that helps you either succeed the next time you try or gives you insight into a new and different goal that you value more
- When you do achieve, you’ll appreciate it more – succeeding after failure tastes much sweeter than the easy successes; though I’m not a fan of intentionally failing or anything, nor do I advocate taking the hard path just to “build character”
There are very few successes without failures. Take basketball great Michael Jordan. Do you know how many times he missed shots? He’s missed more shots than I’ve even attempted. A constant refrain from parents of elementary school basketball players is “I wish they were less afraid to just take some shots”. Lesson: life is a numbers game.
Does this mean you should bang your head against a wall and fail repeatedly in the delusional hope that you’ll eventually win? Of course not. You need so see measureable progress. The young Michael Jordan, even when failing and missing shots and losing games, was able to see his own progress. The pro Michael Jordan was able to make more shots than he missed and win more than he lost. Lesson: you need a way to measure progress, or lack thereof.
I’ve started several companies in my life. One recent effort involved selling someone else’s product in an industry/market I didn’t really understand. After several months, I still wasn’t making any money. And I was wasting my time because there were several other opportunities I had that were being neglected. I didn’t give up soon enough because I didn’t want to fail. After many more months, I finally through in the towel and the next thing I started was much more successful. Lesson: recognize failure and don’t let your ego interfere because success may be hidden behind a different rock.
Imagine a child learning to walk. He takes that first step, and immediately falls. Does he say “Wow, this is too tough. I think I’ll stick with crawling.”? No, he tries again. He really has no other option and doesn’t even consider giving up forever on his dream of walking. Lesson: for life’s most important goals, never ever give up.
What lessons do you have about failure that you are willing to share?