Is it actually smart to set goals?

Usually if you want to get something done you set a goal. Run a marathon, lose a stone, reduce poverty – that kind of thing. This is certainly how traditional development projects work. Logframes are full of targets – 500 people attend training sessions, 1,000 families lifted out of poverty, or 3,000 jobs created. There is an obsession with these SMART goals.

As I see it, there are two problems with these targets however ‘SMART’ they look. Firstly there is no sense or indication of quality. Yes, you may get people to attend the training sessions but if the teacher is useless they are not going to learn anything. And secondly, it sets projects up to succeed (if they meet the goals) and therefore qualify for further funding or fail (if they don’t). This isn’t really how the messy business of social change works. Most projects have some successes and some failure and often a whole host of unanticipated outcomes too. Setting targets at the start of a development project is an attempt to predict the future while assuming away the many aspects that are out of our control.

In some cases, a focus on short-term targets can be at odds with long-term progress because there is the sense that once the goal has been achieved you can stop working on that problem. One example is people who want to lose a certain amount of weight before a big event, do so, and then pile on the pounds afterwards.

Instead of targets, we at Keystone argue in favour of feedback systems. If you commit to this process you will have a signal that indicates when you need to make changes to improve performance. Feedback loops, unlike targets, are highly effective at driving quality. They also ensure that you are focusing on the most important things for the people you serve.

Our advice is to forget the targets. Focussing on a system of feedback loops integrated into your workflow may just be the best way to achieve those long-term social change goals.

I was inspired to write this blog after reading ‘Forget about setting goals. Focus on this instead’ by James Clear. Among other things he also argues that goals reduce current happiness. It’s worth a read.

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