By Liane Hambly
The traditional view of goal setting
Setting clear goals and identifying SMART action steps has long been held as a key component of careers work. The origins of our fascination with goal setting can be traced back to management theory, primarily the MBO approach (management by objectives) developed by Drucker (1954) which shifted attention from inputs to outputs, creating clarity of purpose to inform action, and enabling managers to stand back and prioritise rather than reacting to what appears urgent.
In the mid 1960’s the mantel was taken up by the psychologists Locke and Latham (1968) whose work emphasised the importance of goal setting for increasing motivation and raising performance. They describe a goal as “the object or result being sought” (Locke and Latham cited in David et al 2016: 9), and the more specific and challenging the goal the better.
The acronym SMART has been around since the 1980s and, whilst there are a few versions, it is generally held to stand for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-bound. It’s sometimes difficult to see the difference between the A and the R – hence Whitmore (2002) uses Agreed rather than Attainable. SMARTER is a more recent development, although there different versions as to what the E and the R stand for. E usually stands for energising and /or engaging, acknowledging that SMART on its own can feel dry and even demotivating. (Hambly and Bomford 2019). The R reflects Locke and Latham’s argument that action needs to feel worth it, to have a bit of reach or challenge.
What’s the research?
Perhaps the most famous study often referred to is the 1979 Harvard study of a class of MBA students. Of this class 3% had written goals and plans, 13% had unwritten goals and 84% had no goals. Ten years later the 3% who had written goals earned twice as much as the 84% with no goals.
Although often cited, there is no evidence that such a study took place. There are also too many unanswered questions – why was success only measured in terms of income? Were the other 84% less concerned about money? Who defined what counts as success?
In 2015 Matthews conducted a study to test the supposed findings (Gardener et al 2016). The study of 267 business professionals discovered that people fell into 5 groups:
- Group 1 – had no goals or concrete plans.
- Group 2 – had goals but no action plan.
- Group 3 – had well-defined goals and plans of action.
- Group 4 – had well-defined goals and plans of action, and then sent these to a supportive friend.
- Group 5 – had well-defined goals and plans of action, sent these to a supportive friend and carried out weekly progress reports.
Results revealed that the fifth group accomplished significantly more than all the other groups. What we don’t know is whether group one saw themselves as less successful than group 5, or were less happy than those who achieved their goals.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss the extensive bank of research on this topic and the intent of touching briefly on two major studies was to raise a few questions. Literature reviews tend to conclude that, for some people, having clear goals and action plans is important and helps them to achieve what they want. However, the evidence is not conclusive – what if goal setting isn’t for everyone? What if other people have different indicators of success? What if they are happier living in the moment? Who defines what is success and how to measure it? Can the findings of studies concerning business professionals and sports people be applied to the populace at large?
Has the assertion that well-defined goals and SMART action planning become a dogma where one approach is meant to fit all?
Learning from Business theory
There are many business theorists who challenge the basic assumption that change can and should be planned. They do so on the basis that planned change models can be unresponsive to rapidly changing environments and are unable to incorporate radical, transformational change. In contrast to the planned approach, emergent theories of change management replace goals with the concept of a vision (Senge et al, 1999 Kotter and Rathgeber, 2006). Companies need a vision of principles and purpose which offers a point of continuity amidst the flux of change.
Learning from Neurodiversity
Not everyone’s brains work the same. Indeed, we wouldn’t want them to as diversity brings with it a wealth of colours or lenses through which to view and experience life.
The dominant narrative of careers work is around well-defined goal setting and linear action planning. Yet many people aren’t aligned to this approach. In Jules’ work she has found that some people do not have any concept of a future self and may find goal setting anxiety provoking and/or overwhelming. In the past they have been compliant with other people suggesting goals and action steps, but inside feeling a sense of panic and overwhelm. They feel set up for failure and so become averse to the whole process of goal setting and action planning – they know all too well the subsequent impact on self-esteem and motivation that failure can bring. Jules therefore asks them about any previous experience of setting a goal and action planning, about how they really feel about the process.
Given the dominant narrative, it’s easy to regard any difficulties with the process as being a deficit, lacking a skill or having a problem that needs to be remedied – they need to learn how to set goals and action plans – but do they?
A mindful approach
What if those who struggle to have a concept of a future self are actually better at living in the moment, of enjoying the journey rather than obsessing about the destination?
Imagine setting out on a journey, putting the postcode into your sat nav, clear as to where you are going, the route, how long it will take. You probably go into autopilot, thinking about other matters, following without question the instructions given. You are not fully present.
Now imagine you just set off, no sat nav, no destination. You’re going to go out for the day, see where the road takes you, enjoy the scenery, make decisions as you go along, not minding if it leads to a dead end but turning around and trying another road. There is no success, no failure. You are fully present.
Some people prefer the first approach – they’d be the ones who according to the cited research achieve their goals. Others prefer the second approach. Who is right? Or is there no right way?
Road people or river people?
Nightingale identified two groups of people (you can belong to both groups), those who belong to the river, who have found a river of interest into which they throw themselves with abandon. They might be artists or scientists, and are quite happy spending their lives playing in that river. Then there are the goal-orientated people, decide what they want, keep their eyes on it and work until they reach it. Then they set a new goal.
Action planning and career theory
In career theory the straight road is often aligned to the linear rational matching approach, the winding road and river to Planned Happenstance and Chaos theory. As career practitioners we tend to value what both theories have to offer, and how they might apply to different people at different times. There is no evidence that one approach is better than another. Yet practitioners who subscribe to this still find themselves constrained by action planning criteria that requires a traditional approach. The document itself is driving the process and makes it challenging for advisers to truly tailor the process to the client. More innovative career providers have stopped using the action plan as a measurement tool and ensure that the client chooses whether they want one, and if so, what format they want it in (written, verbally recoded, photograph of diagrams etc).
Diverse methods for diverse clients
Linear forwards. This is the method most of us are probably most familiar with. The classic three questions of “where are you now?”, “where do you want to be?” and “how are you going to get there?” (Egan 2002) are explored through questions such as: “what’s going on at the moment?”, What’s making you want to change?”, What’s the specific goal you would like to achieve?”, “where do you see yourself in 5 years time?” “what are the possible ways forward?” “which of these suit you best?” “what do you need to do to reach your goal?” “what would the first step be? (and the next … and the next)?”. Each action step is made SMART.
Linear backwards. This is a technique used in sports psychology is to envisage where you want to be, and using all the senses to fully inhabit the goal as if you had already achieved it. Once they are fully in that place, they look back to see how they may have got there. The practitioner asks questions such as “what steps did you take to get to this place? What challenges did you face on the way? How did you overcome these challenges? What support and resources did you need in place? In what order did you take those steps? Which of the steps do you imagine felt more enjoyable” (Hambly and Bomford 2019: 104)
Jules, in her work with neurodiverse clients, has found that many struggle with being able to imagine a future self and also with the linear action planning. She has developed a range of alternative methods characterised by a strength-based approach and mentoring approach, working with the client’s existing strengths, capabilities and being alongside them rather than driving the process with our agenda in mind.
Start with the now – what before why and how
When people have no sense of a future self, Jules starts with asking them to describe what makes a good day, and then what makes a bad day. When we ask people to describe something, there is no right or wrong as it is their reality. Open, analytical or abstract questions are difficult to answer without having a context to reflect on. Therefore it can be useful to begin with the what, rather than the why and how, setting the content and locating reflection and analysis in concrete experience.
Jules reflects back and asks curious “what if” questions to gently explore assumptions … “what might happen if …?”, “what might make a good day better?”.
Building on existing strengths
It is human to feel anxious about change and to struggle with potentially life-changing decisions. Our brains like familiarity. Jules therefore finds a safe decision they have already made and asks them to describe how they made it. She reflects back their method and together they consider how the same method could be applied to this scarier one.
This is a relatively common guidance tactic, but here’s the twist. Jules describes how she would have made the same decision but in a different way, perhaps saying how she would just give it a go without worrying, or ask other people for their thoughts. The client’s reaction to this method is discussed, not with any intent to change how they make decisions or manage change, but to introduce awareness that there are different ways. It can introduce the option of taking a small step and trying something without a clear goal in mind. Then there is no failure.
Triggers and blockers
A well-established method for action planning is Force-field analysis in which you draw two columns, identify the positive forces (people, circumstances, resources) assisting action in one column, and in the other identifying the negative forces that constrain action (Reid 2016), working for you in one column, and the factors against in the second column. Together you identify how to utilise the positive factors and reduce the impact of the negative ones. Jules’ version focuses on Triggers and Blockers, with a greater focus on emotional reactions and motivators. She asks them to think about their life, and what makes them do something/take action, and what stops them. They consider the blockers, what the worst case scenario would be and how that could be dealt with. Having a strategy in place for each blocker reduces anxiety. Triggers are what makes them happy, what works for them, the motivators for example, doing it with someone else.
Focus on the short-term
We know that many people’s plans change – a minority of people end up doing what they thought they would when younger. So why do we focus on pinning down the long term? It might be helpful for those who like linear long-term and rational planning (Bimrose et al’s research suggests this may be around 25%). This is where the idea of a guiding vision comes in – it doesn’t have to be a goal, but a picture of likes, interests, values, strengths. It might therefore be an occupational field – the more flexible the better. And this vision will expand and shift through life experience and becoming who we have always been capable of being. The focus is on the short term, a first step, for who knows where it might lead or what one may discover about oneself along the way. Jules’ focus is on what will make her clients feel better so that they can feel good when they have taken that first step.
Doing it with them, not to or for them
The criteria for action plans have often asked for the plan to be agreed with the client. Unfortunately, the word “agreed” can still lead to a process driven by the practitioner’s suggestions with the client being asked questions such as “it that ok?” or worse, “do you agree?”, both leading questions encouraging compliance rather than commitment. Action planning should be collaborative with ideas generated by the client where possible, perhaps within a joint brainstorming activity of possible action steps written on sticky notes, with the client picking the ideas/sticky notes they like the most to create their action plan.
We are aiming for the client to take as much action their selves as is possible, to develop their career management skills. There are times however when a mentoring approach is required, being alongside the client and undertaking a task with them. We talk about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, but maybe there is something in between, when the practitioner’s energy is important, their enthusiasm and confidence rubbing off on the client. This is very different from the fix-it tendency where the adviser takes up a counter position of positivity and advice giving in response to the client’s anxiety and negativity. Being with the client first entails being alongside the anxiety, being able to stay with the client. The adviser can hold both the negative and the positive, empathise and demonstrate belief in the client and possibility for change.
Playing with SMART
SMART (and SMARTER) can be useful but Jules believes you don’t need all of the letters all of the time – and certainty not for every action point.
Setting tight timescales is particularly anxiety provoking for some clients – a rough idea of time might be useful, maybe for the first step. Then see how it goes.
The M when taken to mean measurable has frequently been mis-used by organisations to measure targets. Success is defined by policy makers, funders and organisations, rather than by the client. For the client, success may be emotional – feeling better, more confident, more valued by others. It may be being able to catch a bus on their own, make a phone-call. Action planning and the plan itself should be focused on how the client sees success and set goals and action steps that are meaningful for them.
We have already considered how specific goals may not work for some people, but a broader vision might. If we are setting specific goals then we need to be careful with setting them at the outset of the process as often they emerge from the coaching and guidance process. The presenting goal identified in contracting stage may be a “Trojan horse with deeper goals lying within” (David et al 2016: 335-357). Hence why practitioners often set broad process goals at the outset, for example, “to make a decision that’s right for me”, and recontract at a later stage.
Action planning is a process, the action plan a product which results from the process. These are suggested principles or guidelines to inform both.
- The process should be tailored to the client’s way of thinking
- Success should be defined by the client
- Goals can be long or short term
- Clients can take action without having a specific goal in mind
- The action plan is a summative document and should not drive the process
- The client should have ownership of both content and format
- The structure of the action plan should be as simple as possible to allow for flexibility
- A variety of formats should be available (written, verbal, pictoral etc)
Bimrose, J., Barnes, S.A. and Hughes, D. (2008) Adult Career Progression & Advancement: A five-year study of the effectiveness of guidance, Warwick: Institute of Employment Research
David, S. Clutterbuck, D. and Megginson, D. (2016) Beyond Goals: Effective strategies for Coaching and Mentoring, Routledge
Drucker, P. (1954)The Practice of Management, New York: Harper
Egan, G. (2002) The Skilled Helper: a problem management and opportunity development approach to helping, 7th edition, Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks Cole,
Gardner, Sarah and Albee, Dave, (2016) Goal-setting research cited by TIME, Forbes, Yahoo, others (2016). Press Releases. 3
Hambly, L. and Bomford, C (2019) Creative Career Coaching, Theory into Practice, Routledge
Kotter, J.P., and Rathberger, h., (2006) Our Iceberg is Melting, Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions, Macmillan
Lock, E (1968) Towards a theory of task motivation and incentives Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, Volume 3, Issue 2, May 1968, Pages 157-189
Nightingale, E., (2007) The Essence of Success
Reid, H (2016) Introduction to Career Counselling and Coaching, SAGE
Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R., Roth, G., Smith, B. (1999) The Dance of Change, The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations, Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Whitmore (2002) Coaching for Performance: GROWing People, Performance and Purpose, Nicholas Brealey
Setting clear goals and identifying SMART action steps has long been held as a key component of careers work, but the principles around client ownership are often eroded in the face of targets and impact measurement criteria. The career conversation is in danger of being driven by action planning requirements with the needs of clients being overlooked, in particular the needs of those who are neurodiverse, who may find goal setting and SMART action planning a challenge. In this article we revisit the origins of goal setting and action planning, the rationale for the process, the needs faced by diverse clients and how we can be creative in our approach. The thoughts reflect a conversation with Jules Benton who has extensive experience in the SEND area and working with diverse clients. She currently works for Ansbury Guidance.