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Published 03 July 2012 06:19, Updated 04 July 2012 05:17
Off target ... According to one school of thought, business goals can become fetishes that distort organisations in damaging ways. Photo: James Davies
It may sound impossible for a business to operate without goals but a new book that takes an offbeat approach to happiness and positive thinking points to how that can be successful.
Author Oliver Burkeman in his book The Antidote talks about how large the use of goals looms in the business world.
“The hallmark of a visionary leader, it is widely held, is the willingness to set big, audacious goals for his or her organisation,” Burkeman writes. But in some cases for businesses where there is evidence that a goal doesn’t make sense, “the negative evidence would be reinterpreted as a reason to invest more effort and resources in pursuit of the goal”, he says.
It’s a bit like climbers on Everest who are desperate to achieve their goal of reaching the summit, Burkeman says, referring to ideas from George Washington University assistant professor of management science Christopher Kayes. As the climbers move up the mountain, it becomes harder for them to quit. If it becomes more dangerous and difficult to reach their goal, that can actually feed their determination.
Not being prepared to veer from a course of action can hurt businesses, too. Burkeman gives the example of how a goal of capturing 29 per cent of the car market in the United States that was devised by car maker General Motors, led to unexpected consequences. GM’s plan, hatched in response to the loss of customers, particularly to Japanese competitors, saw the company chase a magic number at the expense of the business.
“GM spent its dwindling finances on money-off schemes and clever advertising, trying to lure drivers into purchasing its unpopular cars rather than investing in the more speculative and open-ended – and thus more uncertain – research that might have resulted in more innovative and more popular vehicles,” Burkeman says.
“Twenty-nine became a fetish, distorting the organisation in damaging ways, fuelling short-termism and blinkered vision.”
There is a different way of thinking, Burkeman says. He refers to Kayes’ view that the entrepreneurial skill that’s worth the most is, “the ability to adopt an unconventional approach to learning: an improvisational flexibility not merely about which route to take towards some predetermined objective, but also a willingness to change the destination itself. This is a flexibility that might be squelched by rigid focus on any one goal.”
Burkeman also heads off the most obvious objection that it’s not that businesses should be goal free but that they should pick the right kind of goals. He does concede some goals make more sense than others. “But the more profound hazard here affects virtually any form of future planning,” he says.
“Problems arise thanks to the law of unintended consequences … In any even slightly complex system, it’s extremely hard to predict how altering one variable will affect the others.”