Beyond targets – how goals are not the answer (in Copenhagen or elsewhere)

The climate change summit in Copenhagen is fast approaching and there is much talk of long-term targets on emissions with goals of huge reductions by 2050.  I am very committed to addressing climate change – and as an Solution Focused practitioner I am not sure that long-term goals are the way to go.  You see, GOALS put you in GAOL.   In my view they are a statement about predictability which flies in the face of en emergent and endlessly surprising universe.

Just about all self-help and management books stress the importance of goals. “Write down your goals” is a mantra in the world of personal development. Some like to have SMART goals – specific, measureable, timed etc. And yet…I wonder if this is always as helpful as it might be.In conventional thinking, the way to make progress is to set a goal and then create a plan to work towards it. You measure success by how close you are to achieving the goal on the desired date. No doubt this can be effective – but is it the only way? Indeed, the British press is filled with stories like the hospital which was so focused on its goals of reducing waiting lists etc that staff neglected basic hygiene and an outbreak of the c. difficile superbug caused 90 deaths.

Some people describe Solution Focused practice as goal-oriented.  They are right in a way – in that progress is the objective as opposed to understanding.   However, goals are not the only way to define and discern progress.  The goal is a part of the platform – the basis for change. It sets a direction for desirable change and helps to clarify the issue at hand.   In SF practice we then move on to consider the Future Perfect.   The Future Perfect is a description, in concrete tiny detail, of a day in the life of the world once the desired changed have somehow – possibily miraculously – happened.  It’s an exercise in imagination, of course – and yet we imagine it happening TOMORROW.   In general once the Future Perfect is described, then the goal seems to fade into the background.

So, is the Future Perfect a goal? I think not – it works in a different way. Although specific, it has no time dimension and may seem to be far from achievable. After all, it’s a miracle! It’s a step in a conversation towards linking the future with the past – the search for counters, resources etc and ‘when does this happen already?’. This then leads to some kind of small steps in the right direction, and then the emergence of ‘what’s better’.  The small steps are usually to be taken in a matter of days, by the people who want change – not left comfortably on the shelf until things get more urgent.

This is a very fluid and emergent way of working. It picks up and builds on signs of progress which cannot be predicted in advance, rather than making a plan. So it is very responsive to changing circumstances and above all helps those involved to keep their eyes on what’s happening, as opposed to the things that should be happening in the plan.  In climate change terms, initiatives like 10:10 (http://www.1010uk.org/) focusing on 10% carbon emissions reduction IN THE YEAR OF 2010 seem much more like a credible route to success.

So – do goals put you in gaol? I think we may be coming to the end of the great goal-rush – goals sometimes seem to me to be a constrained and imprisoning way of working. SF offers a very coherent way to work with the emerging and unknowable future.  In my view, the success of Copenhagen should be judged not on long term targets, but on the number – potentially billions – of small actions taking place in the days and weeks that follow.

For more on the Solution-Focused change movement, visit my website at http://www.sfwork.com, and the online SOLWorld community at http://www.solworld.org .

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6 responses

  1. Hi Mark and thank you for a very good contribution. Yes really an interesting clarity of this important issue. I think I(we) can share these perspectives around us in a more overarching( i dont know if this is the right word for it) and considerable way, than what, at least I personally do, working in organisations. It really attracts my perspective of how we can ‘make a difference that makes a difference’ regarding what is imortant in the world.

    warmly

    Björn

  2. […] ontstaan van wat beter is In zijn bericht Beyond targets – how goals are not the answer geeft Mark McKergow een boodschap die, denk ik, vergelijkbaar is.  Hier zijn enkele citaten uit […]

  3. […] ontstaan van wat beter is In zijn bericht Beyond targets – how goals are not the answer geeft Mark McKergow een boodschap die, denk ik, vergelijkbaar is.  Hier zijn enkele citaten uit […]

  4. Trevor Durnford | Reply

    Thanks Mark, a really useful distinction between goals/objectives and the future perfect. You’re example of the hospital super bug outbreak reminds me of another danger of being focused on goals. In the late 90’s objectives were placed on intensive care units in the UK that patients must be seen by a doctor within a certain minimum time from being admitted into the emergency unit. I heard stories from a reliable source (unconfirmed of course) that in some instances this resulted in patients being kept in ambulances parked outside until there was a good chance that the doctors were free and that the goal could be achieved. The fact that this kept valuable ambulances off the road seemed to be irrelevant. Maybe a future perfect from the patients perspective might have been more useful.

    1. Hi Trevor, it’s hard to respond to this example without using bad language – let’s just stick to WTF here.
      On a less dramatic scale, wrong target setting is also beyond some spectacular company devaluation over the last years, especially when tied into financial incentives for managers (how can such a brain-intensive job have brainless job holders?). BP’s efforts to keep costs low – at all costs – played a significant role in the Mexican Gulf disaster. Shell Oil faced 15% shareprice devaluation in 1 day when shareholders learned that managers had focused on drilling up from known wells only, because for over a decade no bonuses were given for finding new sources.
      I find it incredible that the immense body of management literature on “performance management” holds so few insights on finding the goals or steps forward that really work – in the long run.

  5. Helpful to have clarified that the future perfect is not a goal. Its a miracle/dream and way to big to be a goal. I guess it is more like an aspiration.

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