About six month ago I read an interview with Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, in which he said that he had learnt that setting goals was a miserable waste of time:

“To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.”

Rather than set goals he believes you are much better to work out a system or process which if you repeat over and over produces results without you really thinking about it. A good system should be; easy to repeat, enjoyable to do and produce results each time you do it. Experimenting with a repeatable process was how he discovered Dilbert (and got rich without really trying).

In the last six months I’ve been working to find the system that I can repeat over and over again that will help me both – learn a lot faster and produce ground breaking work. Below is what I have worked out and am applying so far. As I will share in upcoming blog stories it is turning out to be a lot of fun and highly productive. Hopefully it will also give you a few clues for what your own formula might be. Here is mine:

1. Choose three leadership topics that I really want to learn about
One thing I have learned about myself is that I am addicted to progress. If I was a chess player I would always want to play three games at once. When I have only one project going it invariably runs into a delay: resource approval, client consent etc and I get bored. With three on the go I always know that I can be nudging one of them ahead and so progress and motivation are guaranteed.

2. Find A-Class collaborators
For a long time I had thought that I was an independent worker. I noticed that I preferred to write whitepapers on my own and moved to locations (such as Austin) where I had no other colleagues. Then my buddy said to me, “It’s not that you like to work alone, it just that you like to work with A-Class people.” He was right, I love collaborating. I’m just highly selective about when and who I do it with.

3. Only work on real projects
I’ve done my fair share of think-tank, idea sharing groups in my time. They always suck. The reason is that they are too abstract and without a deliverable, people end up bloviating about their philosophies. The collaborations where I have learned the most are always the ones where you are working on an audacious client deliverable that stretches you all beyond your individual capabilities. With these, everyone (including the client) has skin in the game and you must pool your best thinking to come up with something better than any of you individually have ever created.

4. Implement the Solution and Collect data
My CCL colleague David Dinwoodie pointed out to me that most L&D folk treat leadership development and research as two separate areas. Smart people (he never mentioned his own name but I think I got the message) combine them and do both at the same time. When it comes time to deliver the solution, run different variations and collect data on which variables produce the best results.

5. Share what you are doing and learning
In the past I have been guilty of not sharing enough with people about what I am learning. Instead, this month I told three clients about how I flew three of the world’s top thinkers on resilience to Austin to: eat Texas BBQ (they were vegetarians), swim in the lake (too cold apparently) and design the world’s best organizational resilience offering (I think they did). On hearing the story all three clients told me that they wanted this resilience program for their organization. That wasn’t why I told them, it just turns out that if you share the exciting work you are doing, others often want to find ways to be part of it (which means more opportunities to follow the process)

The process above is turning out to be fun, easy and endlessly repeatable for me. And even though I think it is going to create some great, groundbreaking content for CCL and my clients, the truth is it doesn’t feel like work at all (but boss, if you are reading this, it really, really is).

In upcoming blogs I’ll share with you what we are learning and creating. In the meantime, think about your own approach to life. Are you a goal setter? What might it look like if you threw away your goals and instead created a cool process? What might your 3 – 5 steps be?

This blog is a part of the series: Future Trends in Leadership Development    

Follow Nick Petrie as he shares the latest approaches he and other practitioners are experimenting with as they try to discover the future of leadership development.

8 thoughts on “Why I Have Stopped Setting Goals

  1. Vicki Brown says:

    You may just be a different kind of person.
    I recommend looking into the book “Stop Setting Goals (If you would rather solve problems)” by Bob Biehl.

    1. Nick Petrie says:

      Thanks for the book recommend Vicki. I’ll check it out. Nick

  2. Vicki Brown says:

    You may just be a different kind of person.
    I recommend looking into the book “Stop Setting Goals (If you would rather solve problems)” by Bob Biehl.

    1. Nick Petrie says:

      Thanks for the book recommend Vicki. I’ll check it out. Nick

  3. Jay says:

    I think you piece here loses site of the idea that all human behaviour is goal oriented, it is the complexity of the goal that changes. How did you write this price had you not set a goal to 1. Write a thought piece, 2. Publish it. Your process headings are goals. “Share what you are doing” is a goal.

    Your thesis points to the idea that some goals are not that meaningful and really do not nourish our psychological well being. I believe that losing 10 puns on the face of it might be mediocrity and irrelevant for many, however for some it could be the difference between life and death. Failure is not an end point but an opportunity to learn, like you say, how to better execute.

    So good process is a goal broken down into smaller goals. Yet we should keep a minds eye on where we are going because direction is just as important as the journey. Eg. You may want to travel as a free agent to just go with the flow but I bet the free agent would avoid Syria at the moment.

  4. Jay says:

    I think you piece here loses site of the idea that all human behaviour is goal oriented, it is the complexity of the goal that changes. How did you write this price had you not set a goal to 1. Write a thought piece, 2. Publish it. Your process headings are goals. “Share what you are doing” is a goal.

    Your thesis points to the idea that some goals are not that meaningful and really do not nourish our psychological well being. I believe that losing 10 puns on the face of it might be mediocrity and irrelevant for many, however for some it could be the difference between life and death. Failure is not an end point but an opportunity to learn, like you say, how to better execute.

    So good process is a goal broken down into smaller goals. Yet we should keep a minds eye on where we are going because direction is just as important as the journey. Eg. You may want to travel as a free agent to just go with the flow but I bet the free agent would avoid Syria at the moment.

  5. Kris says:

    I think the title is misleading. Those all read as process goals to me. They are still goals (an objective to be achieved) it’s just that they are process oriented rather than object oriented. We have been teaching that for years so I agree it’s important for people to drill down.

    But the real game changer is “next steps”. When you take a goal and break it down to the steps and most importantly, the next achievable step, and then set a time when it will be done, that’s where the progress really happens. And it’s still important to write it down (and putting reminders like Treasure Maps to help keep focused). But it’s those next steps that make all the difference in the world.

  6. Kris says:

    I think the title is misleading. Those all read as process goals to me. They are still goals (an objective to be achieved) it’s just that they are process oriented rather than object oriented. We have been teaching that for years so I agree it’s important for people to drill down.

    But the real game changer is “next steps”. When you take a goal and break it down to the steps and most importantly, the next achievable step, and then set a time when it will be done, that’s where the progress really happens. And it’s still important to write it down (and putting reminders like Treasure Maps to help keep focused). But it’s those next steps that make all the difference in the world.

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