In these unstable times, is the process of setting goals so 2018? Does 2019 require fresh thinking & a more flexible approach?

That is the provocative assertion made by returning guest blogger Tony Boobier. Having previously advised how to survive a performance management culture, he is now overtly digging the tunnel.

Let’s find out if Tony is just being reactionary or has an important point to make. Suspend your disbelief and hear him out (or perhaps you’re already convinced, in which case you’ll love this)…   

Times they are a changing… too much

I can’t recall a more difficult and volatile business environment than the one that we are in at the moment. Perhaps the mid-70’s when we were in the midst of the Three-Day Week? That was a measure introduced by the Government to conserve electricity as a result of the Miner’s Strike. 

This time around, it all feels very different. 

Market instability; retail apocalypse; greater impact of Millennials on the consumer process. More informed consumers; vulnerabilities in global supply chains; adverse impacts of globalisation. Plus, huge political uncertainty. 

But aren’t these just symptoms, rather than causes in their own right, even if perhaps they are all interconnected in their own ways? Wouldn’t it be either a brave or foolish person who puts their finger on what might be the root cause of all this?

Is technology making it worse?

And then of course there is the increasing impact of technology, with AI being on everyone’s lips. ‘Tech’ is rapidly leading to changes in the way we live and work, and threatens traditional methods and value chains. 

This Christmas, footfall in the High Street and in shopping malls seems to have been heavily affected by on-line shopping. This is seen by many to be both more convenient and competitive. This is a trend which is due to continue. How easily can jobs lost on the High Street be replaced by Amazon delivery guys. Not to mention refuse collectors who’s recycling bins seem full to bursting as a result of oversized delivery boxes? 

So, is setting goals so 2018?

And so against this volatile and very uncertain business environment, do we still need to think about setting business goals? Goals for the forthcoming year both at a business and personal level?  Isn’t the process of ‘Setting Goalsso ‘2018’? Don’t we need to approach 2019 and beyond with a different way of thinking? 

At the end of the day, only one thing matters for businesses, and that is survival. Isn’t the foremost task – and responsibility – of professionals to ensure the survival of their businesses? Survival in business could be one of the greatest challenges of our generation.

Survival of… well who?

You’ll find plenty of helpful, and not so helpful, quotes on survival in business. Author Hunter S Thompson said ‘Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it’,. If we accept that, then it seems that luck potentially plays a large part in the equation. I wonder, what do we need to do to create our own luck? What are the attributes needed to remain ‘lucky’?

Some might say that ‘luck’ is simply an expression of the chance of success or failure in a random environment, and to be lucky or not is outside our control. But I’m not so sure. Is there any way that we can load the dice in our favour? Can we create our own ‘luck’?

Is ‘luckiness’ the ability to be flexible, alert, collaborative, aware, action-orientated, and impactful? If so, then perhaps we are able to create those vital ingredients which might help our businesses to survive. These so-called ‘soft skills’ may be partly intuitive, but can’t they be learned (and therefore taught) as well? (Oh yes, says Paul).

That definition of insanity

My sense is that if we enter 2019 using the same old approaches, then won’t we suffer the same old consequences? Aren’t performance management tools best (or maybe only) suited to a stable environment? 

If we think of the concept of ‘performance goals’, how will we cope if the ‘goals’ themselves are moving because of the volatile situation? (So far, I think this is one of the excuses that unsucessful Premier League managers have yet to use. ‘We played great attacking football, but lost the game as the goalposts kept moving…’)

Maybe the performance management tools themselves need to change. Should they operate like a rolling forecast, much as we see in more advanced financial planning? Don’t we need to measure and manage our own performance in the context of the progress (or survival) of our businesses. Together with considering the context of our own performance within the business? 

Taking a wider view

And at a corporate, strategic level, don’t we also need to measure success in context of our competitors’ performance as well? Increasingly I’m thinking that current performance management tools are just too inward-looking. Didn’t the renowned MIT Professor Alan Kay remind us that ‘Context is worth 80 IQ Points?’

We have a choice. W. Edward Deming, was one of the early US Management Consultants and is most famous for Japan’s re-emergence after WW2. He put it like this, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory’”. 

And of course Darwin made the point that “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves to their environment”. (By the way, although these words are often used in the context of Darwin, they’re not said to be an authentic quote.) 

Recommendations for 2019 targets

So for me, 2019 is about three things:

1. Learning new competences. In my particular case, it’ll feel a bit like an old dog learning new tricks, but the dog still needs to be fed.

2. Remaining agile and flexible. For me this means creating multiple plans for multiple scenarios, so that I am not caught by surprise in whatever happens.

3. Continuing to increase my focus on the customer, who is as likely to be confused and uncertain by it all as I am. Isn’t it at times like this, that we really have a chance to add value?

What will you do? Are you still setting goals?

Thanks Tony. How do you respond to his challenge to leaders? Do you think setting goals is so 2018? I was certainly struck by his point as to the importance of context in target setting.

It would be good to hear from any of you who are still committed to goal setting or doing something different instead. I previously shared the value of reflecting on your personal story/journey instead.

I look forward to hearing whether goals are alive and well for 2019 or you have found a more flexible means of accountability.