As 2013 is fastly approaching conventional wisdom dictates that whether as a business or an individual we should be looking to set goals, or should we?

A recent paper by the Harvard Business School, ‘Goals Gone Wild’ reviewed a number of research studies related to goals and concluded that the benefits of goal setting has been exaggerated. The research identified clear side effects associated with goal setting, such as:

  • A narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas
  • A rise in unethical behaviour
  • Distorted risk preferences
  • Corrosion of organisational culture and
  • Reduced intrinsic motivation.

So what is the definition of a goal? Well a goal is specific, measurable and time critical and is usually described using the acronym SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely).

Goals are a form of motivation that set the standard for self-satisfaction with performance. However it is possible that goal setting can drive behaviour that is narrowly focussed and encourages individuals to ‘cheat’ to get the result they want. We might achieve our goals but at what cost to the business and ourselves?

So as well as setting goals why not look at identifying ‘areas of focus’ as well to help individuals and businesses achieve better results in 2013.   A goal identifies the end result, (i.e. where you want to be) but the area of focus could be described as the journey or path to get to the goal.

The research suggests that the purpose of an area of focus is to tap into a person’s intrinsic motivation, because this will not offer an incentive to cheat or take unnecessary risks.

So how do you do it? The key is to build on the outcomes (goals) you and/or the business needs by adding to them the ‘areas of focus’.

For example, a sales target might be to set a revenue target or a specific number of new clients won. An ‘area of focus’ might involve working across the business with sales and other staff to deliver the target.

Another example could be cost savings in a factory. An ‘area of focus’ might identify where you want to explore for cost savings bit not the detriment of production, performance or plant reliability.

Clearly, setting goals is good practice as it helps managers and staff to understand what’s expected. However, goals must not be achieved at any cost and providing ‘areas of focus’ for goals will minimise the risk of this occurring.