September 3, 2010

Reflections on the effects of goal setting and communicating

Yesterday's post contained a 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.

Challenge
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.

Achievable goals
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."

20 comments:

  1. Coert, yet another incredible insightful article. For me the difference the failure of traditional goal setting versus the test-and-learn and solutions-focused approaches is already evident in software development consistently failing with waterfall approaches, that require big up front design and planning, versus the agile approaches which are much closer to the test and learn method. It's great to see the scientific method being used to test many of the long-held assumptions around goal setting.

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  2. This reminds me of Tal Ben Shahar. He named his first book "Happier" and argued that we should not strive to be happy but to be happier.

    Also, for some reason, this reminds me of Tolstoy's interpretation of Jesus' teachings. Basically he said that the level doesn't matter, the only thing that matters is the progression towards higher levels.

    Goals are levels, action is progression. SFC is a very active process.

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  3. thanks Rod, are you involved in agile siftware development ourself?

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  4. Hi Peter, thanks. I agree (see: http://ow.ly/2z0Is )

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  5. Funny thing... I wanted to bookmark the link you sent and realized that it is already in my bookmark list.

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  6. you've been following the blog for quite some time! thanks

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  7. I find it intellectually stimulating and a great source of insights.

    Frequently updated blogs tend to be tiresome after a while but there are a hand full of blogs that never got tiresome: your blog is one of them, others include Seth Godin's blog, Hugh MacLeod's blog and 37signals' blog: Signal vs. Noise.

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  8. I have a few comments.

    First before you can talk about goals and desired futures etc, you must define them. I here am defining a goal a desired end result which is also a definition used in research on goals.

    Second, in the research you mention that was described in Wiseman's book, one group fantasized about getting a great score on an exam, the second group imagined studying. They did not imagine a "good enough" situation. They visualized the work required to achieve the goal. I only mention this because I think it is important to my other points.

    Third, I think SF works because you find a desired or even an ideal situation (miracle question) but then you have them describe specific actions. This works because the person is no longer merely fantasizing but generating actions needed to achieve results just as the students that visualized studying did.

    Fourth, goals are unavoidable (especially in light of the definition above), consciously setting them is not. In the research on goals it's been found that people create goals spontaneously and that goals often fall out of conscious awareness and become chronic. So a young person who is always concerned about looking good eventually stops consciously thinking about it and takes the goal directed actions of picking nice clothes etc. without thinking about his goal.

    You can see a lot of the current research on goals in the book. "The Psychology Of Goals" edited by Gordon B. Moskowitz and Heidi Grant.

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  9. @Peter In response to your comment, research also shows that progress towards a goal produces more happiness than actually achieving it. And SF is all about progress more than the final result so it's a good way to promote happiness.

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  10. Hi Rodney, thanks for your interesting comment. thanks for the correction of the description of the Pham and Taylor study.

    You say "SF works because you find a desired or even an ideal situation (miracle question) but then you have them describe specific actions." I maintain that SF is not about ideal situations. the miracle aspect of the MQ refers to the fact that the problem would had miraculously disappeared, not that the situation that emerged would be ideal, although I know that some understand it like that.

    That goals often emerge unconsciously and can develop to habits is amazing isn't it?

    You mentioned that book before, I'll think about buying it

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  11. Hi Rodney, You mention "research also shows that progress towards a goal produces more happiness than actually achieving it." do you have a reference to that research?

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  12. Hi Coert, thought this was an excellent post and just wanted to let you know... Thanks for writing

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  13. This is indeed interesting. I believe that you cannot fix goals for the next xx months/years, and then continue working towards reaching them, without looking at the environnement conditions, validating the goals are still in synch with your overall vision of your career or personal life. The goals must also include some flexibility, and progress as you progress as well. And sometimes, when looking behind you, you discover that you had achieved some goals but you didn't even notice them, as they were no longer relevant to your current aspirations...

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  14. Hi SeniorPM, Nicely said: as you progress, your goal progresses too

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  15. Hi

    I read this post two times.

    I like it so much, please try to keep posting.

    Let me introduce other material that may be good for our community.

    Source: Goal setting interview questions

    Best regards
    Henry

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  16. Coert,

    I don't have the reference on hand for the idea that happiness is greatest for progress towards a goal than it's achievement unfortunately (this is a very late reply to your comment).

    In response to the idea that telling people our goals makes us less likely to achieve them, I'd like to say that that research only applies to self-defining goals such as becoming a lawyer or doctor. It does not apply to goals with an external focus such as climbing a mountain or finishing a marathon. When a goal has an external focus factors such as committment and consistency come into play when the person lets others know about the goal. It's late at night or I might dig up some references however, I'm sure it's mentioned in "The Psychology Of Goals" the book I mentioned earlier.

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  17. This is indeed interesting. I believe that you cannot fix goals for the next xx months/years, and then continue working towards reaching them, without looking at the environnement conditions, validating the goals are still in synch with your overall vision of your career or personal life. The goals must also include some flexibility, and progress as you progress as well. And sometimes, when looking behind you, you discover that you had achieved some goals but you didn't even notice them, as they were no longer relevant to your current aspirations...

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