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Goals – are they good for you?

In the academic literature there is a debate about the importance of goals. Lock and Latham have argued that the research into the importance of goals in performance is amongst the most researched and replicable findings in the whole management literature. However, Demming and many of his followers in the quality literature have railed against goals and see them as an impediment to continuous improvement.

So what is new? Well on the Today programme there was an interesting interview with Barry Cowan who was at the US Open in New York. He was the guy who came from nowhere in 2001, won his first round in Wimbledon and then took Pete Sampras to five sets. He posed some interesting questions.

  • How important are goals to you?
  • In sport, how does failure compare to real life experiences? Here he compared playing tennis in Andy Murray’s life with his childhood experience of living in Dunblane or one of yesterdays winners in the ladies singles competition compared with her father being buried alive on rubble before being rescued in the Honduras earthquake
  • If goals are so important, does that create fear of failure? And does that fear lead to failure?

Barry also said he played his best tennis when he enjoyed what he was doing. He just wanted to feel he had given his all and, win or lose, he had played the best he could in the game.

Which is all very much like the argument in the academic literature. Goals can be good, but they have consequences too.

Mike Bourne



2 thoughts on “Goals – are they good for you?

  1. A goal may be useful in the sense of providing guidance as to what direction one should take or act towards. Reaching the actual goal may be of secondary importance as things may well have changed during the way. Better enjoy the journey rather than over-stretch!

    Posted by Robert Hellrand | September 3, 2013, 11:18 am
    • Yes I like that. Invariably when I talk to people about performance measurement they always want to focus on the feedback.

      “Did we meet the goal or target? If not, why not?” And then often “who is to blame?”

      When in reality performance measurement for me is about communicating the direction, telling people what we are trying to achieve. I know some very successful companies who set really demanding goals, but they are very tolerant of failure. If you set very demanding goals you will fail, you scorecard will look red all over. But that is how we improve. What they aren’t tolerant about is not trying.


      Posted by Prof Mike Bourne | September 4, 2013, 8:17 am

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