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  • Writer's pictureDan Reed

Barriers to Goal-Setting: Possibilities and Likelihood

Strategic planning for 2021 feels like a silly endeavor. A once-in-a-century pandemic. An election from hell. 10% unemployment. But here we are; it’s planning season 2020.

At its core, strategy is a conversation about an organization’s direction through time and asks the question “what do we want to achieve, specifically, at a time in the future?” The clearer the answer, the more activating it becomes for donors and high-performing staff alike. Ambiguity to this question produces uninspired response.

But creating strategic clarity requires a seemingly rare trait these days: the ability to see new (and sometimes far off) horizons. Kevin Kelly writes:

“Anything real begins with the fiction of what could be. Imagination is therefore the most potent force in the universe, and a skill you can get better at. It’s the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows.”

Below, we set out to identify the primary barriers to organizational imagination and activating vision. These barriers are often subtle, even praised. But make no mistake, these barriers are tell-tale signs that an organization will stagnate, miss goals, and lose talent:

Deferring to the Collective. Planning for a meaningful future requires a healthy imagination; and imagination (of any real impact) requires a willingness to risk something, to move beyond the feasible towards the “possible”.

Risk is vulnerability to a consequential disappointment and exactly what a leader should ask of his/her team.

But leading a team towards an objective with real risk requires an emotional presence impervious to the anxieties of the most risk-averse individuals within the organization.

After all, for many, risk is unacceptable and will be met with resistance.

In many cases, leaders avoid resistance from colleagues by deferring decisions (such as impact goals, organizational influence, revenue goals, guiding beliefs, etc.) to the preferences of the majority or at least a group of people intended to represent the majority.

Inevitably, this process produces a muffled version of the future reflecting the average level of acceptable risk across the individuals in the organization.

It’s not to say that leaders are unilateral in their vision casting and subsequent strategic planning. On the contrary, they should include others’ voices and perspectives; but only insofar that the leader can remain emotionally resolute, undeterred by others’ anxious responses to riskier directions.

Managing Expectations. Driven by the leader’s need to avoid the perception of failure, the organization’s next horizon can only be set as far as it is guaranteed to reach.

Strategic clarity is often hindered by the “hedging” mentality. Informed by an organization’s desire to claim victory no matter what, goals are diminished in their boldness and specificity; after all, it’s difficult to fail at ambiguous objectives.

Ultimately, this mentality results in dull strategic decisions, void of real upside as much as downside.

What bold, compelling visions for impact were “safe bets”?

Hedging the downside is understandable. Meeting or exceeding expectations is a function of the goals that are set and the stated job of an executive director. The less specific or bold the goals, the greater the likelihood of exceeding them.

Unfortunately, hedged expectations are not how exponential growth occurs. High performing teams and greater giving is activated by the very thing we are incentivized to avoid: specific, timely goals of real consequence (good or bad).

Despite our best efforts to avoid failure, it's the possibility of failure and its counterpart of success that drives performance upwards.

Lead. Don’t hedge.

Data-Driven Decisions. The collection and analysis of data is an invaluable tool when determining tactical or even strategic decisions. In fact, data-driven organizations tend to be more analytical, communicate with more integrity, and be more efficient. Data is good.

But more often, leaders are looking for more data to achieve a level of certainty before making directional decisions. We begin to operate under the belief that if we know enough, we can then make the right call. Therefore, we throw ourselves into a deluge of information-finding endeavors. We read more books, attend more conferences, gather more data, do more analysis, keep up with new publications, etc.

Edwin Friedman writes “As long as leaders...base their confidence on how much data they have acquired, they are doomed to feeling inadequate, forever. They will never catch up.” Data is ever-growing and learnings are always diverging in often contradictory ways. Leaders will never know enough to be certain.

Friedman continues, “Data can only be harnessed to the extent that leaders can recognize that not all information is worth gathering.”

Since data best reflects the outcomes of past activity, it’s not a great predictor of what’s possible. It may predict likely outcomes but not possible outcomes.

In following data’s lead too closely, it will likely guide us to the mathematical mean of possibilities, those outcomes with low-risk, low-reward.

The certainty that data can provide may give us a sense of confidence in horizons that are likely to be realized. But the social sector, perhaps more than anywhere else, requires leaders in pursuit of a vision unlikely, but possible.

Conclusion. The above barriers are, at their core, our emotional responses to risk. We desire certainty to such a high degree that we avoid uncomfortable pursuits. We allow the organization’s future impact to be bound by our anxieties and those of the team around us.

We then defer our leadership to others, manage expectations in an attempt to feel successful regardless of real impact, and we hide behind “not enough information” to make clear decisions about where our organization is going and what it will specifically achieve.

There are horizons anchored in likelihoods and horizons anchored in possibility. From which do you lead?

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