This month’s Ruly Bookshelf choice is a vintage book: “Goal Analysis” by Robert F. Mager, copyright 1972. When I was thinking about what book to choose on goal setting, I realized that goal setting is one of those timeless topics where having the latest technology doesn’t confer many advantages. So I wanted to see how it was done years ago and see if anything has changed. (Please note, however, that there is a newer, 1997 revised edition of “Goal Analysis” as well.)
Buying used books is a delightful experience. They are usually not all that expensive and put you in contact with a variety of small business owners who hand pack and ship the books to you, often with a brief note of thanks. This personal touch to bookbuying is absent in most of today’s purchases. My copy of “Goal Analysis” came from Wonder Book which I found using the search engine at AbeBooks.
The focus of “Goal Analysis,” is how to take a vague conceptual goal (like “be more organized”) and translate it into actionable items. Mr. Mager proposes a 5-step process:
- Write down the goal.
- Write down the things you would want someone to say or do to cause you to agree that the person represents the goal.
- Sort and refine your list.
- Write a complete statement describing the performance(s) you want to see.
- Test what you have written with the question, “If someone performed all of the items on my list, would I agree that the person had achieved the goal?”
Two of the most important concepts I learned from this book were to ensure that goals are people-based and stated in positive terms.
“[T]hink of someone who already has achieved your goal, someone who represents your goal, and write down the things he says and the things he does that cause you to be willing to pin that goal label on him. . . . If you can not think of anyone who represents your goal, you have a problem. . . . If . . . you . . . can not think of someone who represents the state or condition described by the goal, you need to think of what a person might be like if he represented your goal. You are skating on thin ice, though, because when you think of hypothetical people, there is the danger that your expectations will be forever unattainable.”
Somehow we have really gotten away from this simple concept of basing goals on real people. When I set goals for myself, I often fall into the hypothetical person trap, as I think many people and employers do. We have to remind ourselves that the goal we are setting has to be capable of being achieved by someone. If no person ever fully achieves the goal, it is unmotivating. Wouldn’t you rather be in a position where you have a set of challenging goals that you ultimately achieve and then set new even more challenging goals for yourself rather than endlessly strive toward vague, ultimately unachievable goals?
Perhaps one of the reasons we tend to use hypothetical people in our goal setting is that when we think of actual people who have achieved the goal, we tend to remember their deficiencies as frequently as their achievements. For example, one might say, “Like Bob, but more ___.” or “Like Jane, but not ____.” Mr. Mager’s message seems to be to focus in on only the good aspects and say, “Like Bob and Jane.” Doing this would require an acceptance that each person is going to have something that is not perfect about them but that so long as the person is achieving the ultimate goal, the imperfections are OK.
Mr. Mager’s positivity extends to the goal writing itself.
“[A]pproach [goal writing] from the positive by writing down the performances you do want to see to convince you your goal is achieved, and this is the approach to take whenever you can. When you find yourself unable to make progress, however, you might aproach from the negative by writing down performances you don’t want to see. . . “
Mr. Mager gives several examples in the book of consulting work he did with various clients to get them to define what they meant by objectives such as “good tone of service” or “show concern for patient welfare.” Often, it was easier for the groups to remember and define the behaviors they didn’t want to see rather than the ones they did want to see. In my example of “be more organized,” for example, you might define it negatively as:
- “Doesn’t forget important appointments.”
- “Doesn’t spend a lot of time looking for things.”
Mr. Mager then coached his clients to turn those negative statements into positive statements. In the process, often his clients found that the initial goal statement was really referring to another concept entirely. So, for example, while the nurses were initially trying to “show concern for patient welfare,” ultimately they decided to “prevent patient embarrassment.”
Some other tips and good quotes from Mr. Mager:
“Check the goal to make sure it describes an outcome rather than a process . . . That is, make the statement say, “have a favorable attitude toward carbuncles,” rather than “learn to have a favorable attitude toward carbuncles.”
“[Y]ou may find goals that are administrative rather than instructional–goals that can only be achieved by an institution, not an individual. . . . For example, an item such as “reduce absenteeism” is not something a student or trainee can do anything about. It is an administrative goal. You may wish to change the item to “have no unexcused absences,” because that is characteristic of an individual.”
“If you know you can’t observe the performances that are the meaning of your goal, just try to refrain from judging people in terms of that goal. . . . [A]bove all, try to remember that it is a highly questionable practice to label someone as having achieved or not achieved a goal state when you don’t even know what you would take as evidence of achievement.”
When I think of Mr. Mager’s process and tips I am reminded of an episode of Oprah from a few years back where Oprah was taking questions from the audience. A woman stood up and said, “Oh, Oprah, I find you so inspiring and amazing.” “Thank you,” Oprah said, “Why?” The woman was taken aback and stammered something like, “Oh, for a lot of reasons. I just do.” Oprah then told the woman that she often receives compliments but that she would like to know the specific things she does that people think are amazing and wonderful. I also find Oprah amazing and wonderful but if you ask me to define why, the list seems so silly and doesn’t capture the full conception of who Oprah is: “Because she reinvigorated book reading in this country,” “Because she has a great sense of humor,” “Because she takes on challenging issues,” “Because she relates to people in a sincere and thought-provoking way.”
Mr. Mager would say that this list of “trivial” items is exactly what goal analysis is about. As people, we are not grand conceptions, we are specific, achievable goals.
“The test of triviality is in the consequence of not achieving the performance. . . .[I]f there is a consequence then the performance is not trivial . . . .”
So, for example, if Oprah did not “take on challenging issues” would she still be Oprah? Probably not.
“Goal Analysis” is a quick read and is particularly relevant for anyone who manages or coaches people. In the last chapter, Mr. Mager provides a method for charting goal achievement, including a way to plot the performance of numerous people toward the achievement of common goals, which would be a highly useful tool for anyone conducting performance evaluations.
Have you ever had to define an undefinable goal? Are you currently subject to undefinable goals in your employment? How would you define why Oprah is so great? Please share in the comments. As a reminder, anyone posting a comment in January, can receive a Ruly thank you note by sending me your mailing address at firstname.lastname@example.org.