TED video of Derek Sivers with the following message: telling someone your goals makes them less likely to happen. Sivers summarizes psychological research which shows that when you announce goals to others, the mind can get tricked into believing the work required to achieve the goals has already been done. He describes an experiment in which all respondents were asked to write down a personal goal. Half of the people were asked to announce their goal, the other half did not announce their goal. Next, all of them were put to work for 45 minutes to do work that could lead to achievement of that goal. They could stop at any time they wanted. The non-announcers worked for the entire 45 minutes and, after that, said they still had a long way to go. The announcers stop, on average, after 33 minutes and afterwards said they felt much closer to achieving their goal. Sivers recommends three things: 1) resist announcing your personal goal, 2) delay the gratification that social acknowledgement gives, and 3) understand that the brain confuses saying with doing.
To solution-focused practitioners this research seems to pose a challenge. After all, is announcing goals not one of the core aspects of the solution-focused approach? This challenge was verbalized beautifully by Jonathan Weitzman who, in response to my post, asked if I believed this adding: "Talking about them is part of turning them into reality. If one is not supposed to speak out about goals.. then how does a solution-focused trainer and coach earn a living?" I agree, this research looks like an anomaly to solution-focused theory. And although anomalies may feel a bit threatening at first and create confusion, they can be very useful. They can be viewed as doors which, once opened, create new insights and applications.
SF as goal directed
The originators of the solution-focused approach did indeed describe the solution-focused approach as a goal directed approach (de Shazer, 1988) and recommended setting well defined goals (Walter and Peller, 1992) which should be: 1) in a positive representation, 2) in a process form, 3) in the here and now - which means the client can start the solution immediately, 4) as specific as possible, 5) within the client's control, and 6) in the client's language.
I have written several things about goals in the past. In Realizing change through achievable goals I have said that achievable change goals are: 1) Results-oriented: the attention is focused on making progress in the direction of the desired results, 2) Positive: the goal defined in positive terms: people know how they want things to be different, and 3) Concrete: the goal is defined in concrete terms: people can clearly determine when the goal (or progress in the direction of the goal) is achieved.
Good-enough desired situations instead of ideal situations
In addition to this, I have argued in several posts that the goal of the solution-focused approach is not to achieve an ideal state, but, instead, to achieve a situation that is good enough (for instance here). The importance of good-enough goal formulations is confirmed by research. In the post 59 seconds- Think a little Change a lot, which reviews a book by Richard Wiseman, I describe a study by Pham and Taylor (1999) on motivation. These researchers had participants in the experimental condition visualize a doing exceptionally well in their exams that were coming up. Students in the control conditions were asked to visualize themselves while doing the exams but doing normally, not exceptionally well. Although the intervention lasted very briefly, the effect was strong. Students in the experimental condition had felt good during the visualization but studied less hard and reached lower marks. Wiseman comments that visualizing a perfect future may make you feel better, it is a form of mental escapism which has the negative side effect of leaving you unprepared for difficulties that crop up on the ‘rocky road’ to success. Wiseman concludes: “Fantasizing about heaven on earth may put a smile on your face, but is unlikely to help transform your dreams into reality.” This research confirms that as SF practitioners we should probably refrain from asking people what their ideal situation looks like, what their ‘best’ hopes would be, and what their perfect futures would look like. Instead, we’d better ask them to describe situations, futures and hopes that would be ‘good enough’.
Caveats and possible negative consequences of goal setting
Also, I have taken a slightly skeptical approach to goal setting in the post Careful with that goal which mentions the article 'Goals Gone Wild'. The authors of this article acknowledge that goals can produce positive results but say that the challenging character of goals can also cause them to 'go wild': 1) When goals are too specific, 2) When goals are too narrow, 3) When there are too many goals, 4) When an inappropriate time horizon is used, and 5) When goals are too challenging. Goals gone wild can lead to: 1) excessive risk taking, 2) unethical behavior, 3) negative psychological consequences in the case of goal failure, 4) inhibited learning and cooperation, 5) a culture of competition, and 6) harmed motivation. The authors call for a use of goals with careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.
Goals versus developing desired situations
Finally, and most importantly, I have described the 'goal' part of the solution-focused process not as a static goal but rather as 'the desired situation'. Instead of choosing a goal at the beginning of the solution-focused process which is then left unchanged, the 'goal' develops during the process. It is continuously developed, refined and even changed as the process proceeds. A good way of thinking about this is through the contrast of the so-called plan-and-implement model and the test-and-learn model of change. The conventional way of thinking about change corresponds with the plan-and-implement model. This model says that you first have to analyze and reflect in order to be able to develop a clear picture of what you want to achieve and only then you can take steps to realize this picture. However, Herminia Ibarra’s research shows that effective (career) change follows a different pattern, one which is described by the so-called test-and-learn model. This model, which is a good description of how the solution-focused approach works, is refers to circular process in which iterative rounds of action and reflection lead to updating goals and possibilities. The 'end goal' will be continually developing and perhaps even changing a lot as we go along. The process is inductive with progress by iteration with leaps of insight based on are experience of what works. Because of this way of working it is very unlikely to end up in a situation in wich you stop being committed to a goal which you have once set and announced because the process is open ended and evolving from moment to moment.
The emergence of what is better
In his post Beyond targets – how goals are not the answer Mark McKergow has, I think, a similar message. Here are a few quotes from his post: "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.[...] In conventional thinking, the way to make progress is to set a goal and then create a plan to work towards it." Then, he reflects on whether solution-focused change's preferred future is a goal: "I think not - it works in a different way. It's a step in a conversation towards linking the future with the past [...] This then leads to some kind of small steps in the right direction, and then the emergence of 'what's better'. This is a very fluid and emergent way of working. It picks up and builds on 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. [...] 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."