Are Goals Bulls**t?




In this episode of The Clarifier, join host Angie D’Sa as she speaks to CEO coach Trevor Hunter about how to set effective goals. Tune in to learn how most of us are setting goals that we think we can achieve and why what actually serves us is setting goals from which we can learn.

Listen to discover:

  • How to set effective goals that win
  • The science and psychology of goals
  • The problems with conventional thinking about goals

Remember to subscribe to The Clarifier on your favorite podcast platform and gain valuable insights from leaders who dare to look inward for more effective leadership.

Full Transcript

Angie D’Sa 00:04

Welcome to The Clarifier. In this week’s episode, we ask the question, “Are goals bullshit?” I talked to CEO coach Trevor Hunter, who shares with us his insights about how to set effective goals. It turns out most of us are setting goals we think we can achieve, when what would really serve us is setting goals from which we can learn.

Trevor Hunter 00:26

There’s just never going to be a right answer. There are no best practices, no right answers, no things you’re going to discover that unlock the future for you for all time. Everything is just too messy. You’re too messy, and I’m too messy. The world is too messy. And what that means is that the more you are judging yourself or pressuring yourself to find that answer, the more you’re just wasting your own potential, I think.

Angie D’Sa 00:59

I invite you to listen to this week’s episode if you’re setting your own goals, setting goals for others, or if you’re the person responsible for goal-setting in your organization. Hi, Trevor.

Trevor Hunter 01:15

Hey, Angie.

Angie D’Sa 01:17

Welcome to The Clarifier! How excited are you to be here?

Trevor Hunter 01:21

I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here.

Angie D’Sa 01:23

Is that because you’re this excited? My daughter asks me if she wants to size things up, like, “Do we have this much time before we go? Do we have this much time? Are you this mad at me? Are you this mad?”

Trevor Hunter 01:36

Yeah, it’s more of a qualitative measurement of how excited I am. So it’s difficult to put on paper.

Angie D’Sa 01:45

Okay, so the topic we’re discussing today is goals. And I’m excited to get into this one with you because you’ve been thinking deeply about this topic. You shared with me a headline or a takeaway that surprised me, which was, “Goals are bullshit.” The reason that’s surprising to me is that you, as a coach, spend most of your waking hours guiding CEOs on how to achieve their goals. So what do you mean when you say goals are bullshit?

Trevor Hunter 02:23

Well, I, you know, as a contrarian, I’m prone to overstatement. Let me clarify the way that I think most people treat goals: they’re bullshit. Goals are unavoidable. Goals are everywhere. Every single organism on this planet has a goal. Every complex adaptive system is going to have a goal. So goals exist. I’m not going to try to argue against that; that seems pointless. But the nature of goals, I think, is one that is really far more interesting but also difficult to grasp and use than the sort of standard business way of thinking about it. In terms of “let’s put our key results, our objectives, everything on paper, let’s report out on them every day for a quarter, and then let’s review how we did and why we didn’t achieve them if we did, if we didn’t. And if we did, you know, hurray, let’s pick harder goals next time.” That whole process is missing something.

Angie D’Sa 03:44  

Yeah, what’s missing from that way of thinking about goals?

Trevor Hunter 03:47

Yeah, what’s missing, I think, is that, first of all, that way of thinking and operating against goals fundamentally misses the fact that the chances that you’ve picked the right goal are close to zero. So what I mean by that, I said everything, every organism has goals. Great. And so you take something like bacteria, bacteria has goals, bacteria is also a very complicated thing. If you take any cell molecular biology course, you get to learn all sorts of intricate machinery and all sorts of interesting things just to make a bacteria go from here to there to eat a little bit more food. Now, scale that up to humans, which not only have to deal with all of our cellular mechanisms, there’s also neuronal mechanisms. There’s this entangled web of stuff that we have going on in our heads that are trying to serve so many different implicit goals at once. The goals of wanting to be liked, of wanting to be in the “in group”, the goal of wanting status within that group, the goal of wanting to preserve one’s own security, in or out of a group – all these different things that are constantly, constantly there for us. And they don’t go away just because you say, “Oh, and also I’m going to drive this project to completion by the end of the quarter with this much monthly revenue.” Those are all there at the same time. And so the fact that you’ve picked a goal doesn’t mean that is your goal. Every human being will then experience the tension between all the goals they’re trying to serve at any given point, which are all in service of survival and reproduction, essentially, like any other advanced organism or any organism really, with this thing that either they have picked or has been given to them. And we simply don’t, and will never have, absolute self-awareness of everything that’s going on with us at any given point. So we’re not going to be able to understand, nor will we be able to help others understand what their exact goal should be, given what is happening, who they are, given what they’re like, given the context they’re in. And so if you take those facts – one, everyone has a goal; two, because of the complex nature of that goal, they don’t really know what it is; and three, the way goals are created and used in business environments is essentially like, “Pick something and go achieve that thing, go execute that thing” – you have the recipe for what I think many of us see, which is those goals often aren’t achieved, we often don’t really understand why they’re not achieved, it often just feels awful, miserable, to try to pursue those goals. We’re constantly looking around and seeing people doing things that don’t make sense to us against the goal that we’re all seeing that we have. People are thinking the same thing about you. You have a recipe for confusion that is just completely inherent in those three facts.

Angie D ́Sa 07:23

So let me digest what you’re saying, because that was really rich. And you referred to a whole bunch of scientific disciplines that are outside my realm of knowledge. Let’s see what I understood from what you shared. The first thing I’m taking away is wherever you are on the species ladder, you are pursuing a goal. That goal is complex and compound. It’s a result of all the different systems that make you up. It’s a result of evolutionary programming, it’s a result of your current biology, it’s a result of the hormones triggered in you because of the context you’re in at the moment. And because that’s a complex and compound goal, it is inherently unknowable. There are too many things going into it, and it’s evolving all the time. So as a human, the goal you’re pursuing is unknowable. But then we go into the office each day or into the Zoom Room each day, and we pretend like the goal we’re pursuing is the one that’s on our OKRs for the quarter. And in that dissonance between the reality of what we’re pursuing in any given moment and the thing we’re stating out loud or explicitly that we’re pursuing, there is the opportunity for confusion. But I think there’s also potentially the opportunity for learning.

Trevor Hunter 08:49

Yeah, exactly.

Angie D’Sa 08:51

Okay. And so with that as our starting point, how should we think about goals if the current system that exists in most organizations, which is we set goals, we commit to them, we check in on them on some basis, we talk about why things went wrong when they went wrong, we set higher goals for the future – if that doesn’t work, how should we treat goals?

Trevor Hunter 09:14

Well, in answering that question, of course, it’s implicit in the mission of the podcast that we’re talking on. But how we should treat goals if we want to unleash human potential, if we want to get as much out of people in terms of both their productivity and their experience as we can, for the company’s good and for their good, then I think, you know, I previously was more of an anti-goals radical. I think perhaps the first time anyone ever heard me say “goals are bullshit,” maybe it was even further over the line of like, “Yeah, screw all goals, call them something not so goals.” Then I was confronted with the reality that you have to coordinate with people, and people have to understand what it is you’re doing. But against the idea that you are trying to unleash a person’s potential, trying to unleash your own potential, and that the way to do that is by learning – learning as fast as possible, learning better than everyone else – it’s a distinct competitive advantage for you in the company and in the labor market. It’s a distinct competitive advantage for a company. Of course, if you’re able to learn faster than everyone else, you’re going to win. So goals can be a really, really useful tool, in fact, probably a critical tool for learning, especially learning in coordinated groups. So if you take the goal out of the perspective of, “This is a thing that has been handed to us that we need to achieve in order to make the numbers work for whatever, our report to our investors, or to make our manager happier, whatever the underlying motivation is,” and you instead reframe the goal as, “This is the way that we learn the fastest about how to be our best selves at work, how to achieve the most meaningful results for ourselves at work,” then they can be extremely useful.

Angie D’Sa 12:01

Can you take that from this abstract and theoretical concept and say, “What does that actually mean? How would I set a goal differently? How would I pursue a goal differently? If my intent were to learn from it individually or as a group, as opposed to blindly pursuing its achievement? What would it look like to do that differently?”

Trevor Hunter 12:21

Yeah, so one of the things that, in working with clients, I encountered over and over again, when I would talk to them about goals, is they would keep asking me, “Well, how do I know that it’s a good goal? What’s a good way to measure my goals? Should I be using SMART goals? Should I be doing fast goals? Should I be doing OKRs? Should I be doing something else?” And, you know, 90% of the time, the so-called “right answer” that I tell them is just, just pick something. If you’re taking the perspective that the goal is just a way for you to learn, then its most important aspect is simply that it exists. The more time you spend trying to find the right goal, the less time you’re spending acting against even an arbitrary goal to see what’s true. We’re trying to figure out what’s actually true. It’s not just us who are complex; organizations are complex, markets are complex. The entire ecosystem in which we are operating is complex. The nature of complexity means you’re not going to be able to easily or at all predict it. You’re not going to be able to say, “This is the correct way.” Because the things that I believe about the world right now are not going to be true in six months. That’s never true. So you just need something in the ground so that you can start moving forward. So that you can start learning, because the world is going to be changing around you too. And you want to be acting with the world, you don’t want to be thinking against it.

Angie D’Sa 14:05

Give us an example. Oh, sorry, go ahead.

Trevor Hunter 14:08  

And then, to be clear, within that frame, there are better ways of thinking about goals. Not only do you want it to exist, but you generally want the path to learning to be pretty short. It doesn’t mean you can’t pick a further goal, as long as you’ve picked something closer to you. That will give you a signal earlier on. If you set a goal where you essentially get no data back against that goal for six months, for a year, for five years, well, then your learning cycle is going to be that long. You don’t want to wait five years before you figure out whether your assumptions were right or not. First of all, you weren’t right. We never are, and that’s fine, that’s good. So if you want to figure out how you’re not right in your assumptions, not only do you just want to put a stake in the ground and a goal, but you also want that stake to be relatively near in the future so that you can get the quickest information back about where your assumptions were flawed.

Angie D’Sa 15:15

So I think what I’m hearing you say is there are a few traps around goal setting that people can fall into. The first of which I heard is that a goal is something you have to achieve, as opposed to a goal as a way of orienting your action and then learning from having taken that action. I’m also hearing you say that you can fall into a trap of really trying to pick the right goal, as opposed to picking a goal because that’s what will motivate action-taking and learning. And I think I’m also hearing you say that picking a goal and having a way of measuring, getting a feedback loop on a time horizon that actually allows you to then learn and pick better – whether that’s changing your goal, whether that’s changing the way you’re pursuing it – is a measure of whether that’s a useful goal or not. Right. That’s the thing I’d love to have you talk a little bit more about, which still feels a bit abstract to me. I want to try and make it real. It would be helpful to me if you have an example of a client you’ve worked with where you’ve gone through this loop of just picking a goal and getting moving.

Trevor Hunter 16:40

Yeah, sure. So, to start conceptualizing, my point is that the type of learning you’re likely to get is learning about yourself, learning about your context, or learning about the interface between those two things. When I say “context,” I mean both existing processes, systems, and other people. Something that every context represents – this might be quite conceptual – is a representation of constraints. And by constraints, I mean, if your investors have an expectation of you, and they have higher authority or RAM, you should know what those things are. That is a constraint upon you. For me, it’s “don’t get fired.” If you’re working in product, and marketing has its own goals that you’re also serving, those goals are constraints upon what is available to you. And constraints aren’t bad; constraints are actually good. Constraints are everywhere. If you had literally zero constraints, it would most likely be extremely overwhelming, and also you probably wouldn’t achieve anything. I used to work in the arts a lot. I worked with musicians, composers, and one of the first things any composer I worked with would get is like, “Okay, here’s what the commission is. You’re writing for this type of group, it’s going to be about this, you know, 10 to 15 minutes or two hours, or whatever it’s going to be, it’s going to be performed on this date, and it’s going to pay you this much.” So you start to have the basic outlines: “Okay, here are the available pieces that I can actually write.” And then what all of the truly excellent composers that I got to know would do, as a first step, is they would start to give themselves more constraints. They would start to set more parameters, to say, “Well, you know, I can’t write this type of piece; I have to explore this type of theme,” etc. Those are all just parts of the context that you might be imposing upon the context that others might be imposing upon the context. But whether you’re a composer or a CEO, mid-level manager, or whoever, you’re going to have constraints. And part of it is you don’t know what all your constraints are. You don’t know everything that everybody is expecting of you. You don’t know everything the market expects of you, what customers expect you to do. Sure, you could go get more information on that, but you’ll never know all of it. And so, part of acting against the goal is gathering more information about what those constraints, what those expectations of others are. 

So, to use an example, I’m working with a chief product officer. Early on in the relationship, I asked, “What are your goals? What are the expectations your CEO has?” And she gave an answer that started with the mission of the company. I had also heard the mission of the company from others; those had their own problems. But by and large, reporting back, yes, that is what I hear others talking about as well. And then going into, “Given that mission, I need to improve the performance of the product function.” Okay, what does that mean? How has that been measured? Are there any particular projects or sub-goals associated with that? And she said, “Well, essentially, I have some ideas, but not really. My manager basically tells me I need to learn how to manage better, but we don’t really think about these things in detail. My CEO sort of expects me to come up with it myself.” Okay, and what are the near-term goals? Are there any commitments the company has to deliver on? Well, you know, we’ve made commitments to the board that we have to report on next quarter. Some of those things relate to what I’m doing, but most of them really don’t. So, I’m going to say, “You don’t really have goals?” And she said, “I guess, yeah, not great.” So, you want to improve performance, and I can connect that you would want to improve performance based upon previous behavioral patterns I’ve seen from you, based upon previous outcomes you’ve achieved that I thought were meaningful to you. So, I can buy that you want to improve performance, even though that’s too broad of a brush to paint with. What would improving performance mean, you know? And she said, “Well, there’s this one project with improving the talent of our VP layer that I think we need to do to get more redundancy in the organization.” I said, “Okay, well, for various reasons, I don’t think that goal is necessarily the greatest, but I don’t care. Let’s put it in the ground, let’s put a stake in it. And say that over the next six months, which was the time horizon she gave me, you’re going to improve the performance of your organization by increasing the level of redundancy at the VP level.” Okay, let’s start setting goals then about what is the thing that would prevent you from doing that. What are the biggest barriers? And she said, “Well, right now, my design really just doesn’t work.” She has good. A lot of my clients don’t necessarily see that particular part, but she sees it. And she said, “But I’m not really sure what to do about that. I need to make new hires or something, but I definitely need to get certain responsibilities off my plate, I definitely need to be managing at different levels.” So, I’m managing to increase the talent component of the organization. Great. So then, let’s set a goal and a near-term goal of you reorganizing the design around you, not reordering product as a whole, but just redesigning around you to get you more leverage and more time to spend improving the capacity of others or hiring where that does not exist. So, what are your options? We were talking about who else was in the organization. There were some potential people, like, “Maybe they could step up, or maybe they could work on this plan.” Alright, great. So now we’re going to set a one-month goal where you are going to create experiments with these three people to see if they can deliver in these particular areas that would provide support for the idea that they could hold these responsibilities for you, in service to your talent goal and the company’s goals. Also, we’re testing whether you can manage people at that level, because just as they are inexperienced at this level, you are an inexperienced manager at this level. So, that’s all we’re experimenting with, in service to these goals.

Angie D’Sa 25:20

One of the things you keep doing, Trevor, that I want to call out, is as you walk us through the story of selecting a goal, narrowing in on the part of it that can be pursued in the near term, etc., I hear you articulating the hypothesis that this person, this chief product officer, tests by pursuing this goal. So, I think you said earlier on that the measure of the goal is not whether you achieve it; the measure of the goal is whether you can learn from it. Yeah. And so what I hear you doing at each step, as you are defining and refining this goal with this client, is asking, “What are you going to learn from pursuing this? What is the hypothesis you have that makes this goal worthwhile that we’re going to test and learn from as we go after it?” If I think back to what feels brutal about so many goal-setting and goal evaluation processes I’ve been a part of and seen, it’s missing that step. What hypothesis are we testing by pursuing this goal, so that we can be committed to gathering the data and learning against that hypothesis, not just measuring whether the actual business outcome was achieved?

Trevor Hunter 26:28

Yeah, that’s a great call out. Thank you. Yeah, I have explicitly stated to her, because this is all still in progress. I’ve explicitly stated to her, “I am not holding it as a guarantee that what makes the most sense to you, for you, is to manage at this level. My hypothesis is you can, because you’re a good structural thinker, because you’re good with people, because you know various things. I think this might fit with something you would really be talented at and find purposeful. And I don’t know what I don’t know. So I am not just setting this goal to say this is what you have to achieve. I am setting this goal as a test, a test of you in this particular context. And so, this test is a hypothesis, it is a validation or invalidation of that hypothesis. We’ll diagnose it as it goes along. We’re not going to get to the end of it and say you’re a good manager or a bad manager. It’s just what have we learned. But that is how I would measure if it was a good goal. If we kept setting that goal and we kept learning, learning that she’s struggling with this, at what point are we not learning anything at all? Well, then it’s a bad goal.”

Angie D’Sa 27:56

Yeah, yeah. An analogy that’s coming to mind is in the realm of sports, which is a dangerous one for me to go into because I talk sportingly about sports ball. The one little thing I can relate to in the world of athletics and athleticism is my brief foray into trying to become a runner. So, the thing that I can relate to is this idea that as I set faster and faster desired mile times, it’s not actually about hitting those mile times, but it’s about learning what I need to do to get there. What do I need to do in my training? What do I need to do in my strength training, etc., to be able to hit those times? And so that feels like a very tangible and concrete analogy to what I think I hear you saying you can do in a professional context, which is set the goal. But really, what you’re doing by setting your goal is you’re giving yourself the opportunity to practice with a deliberate experiment or a test in mind.

Trevor Hunter 28:56

Yeah, and not to expand the field we’re talking about too much, and I definitely won’t keep talking sports metaphors. But if the hypothesis is validated, if you see the person start to manage better, if you yourself start running faster, your standards will change. Your standards will evolve upward. You will start to expect more of yourself. You will start to believe you are capable of more. You will start to believe others are capable of more. And those upwardly shifting standards, as a result of that practice, as a result of that learning, are actually tremendously valuable to yourself and to the organization compared to if you hadn’t done that at all. You’re still operating with the standards that you had three months ago.

Angie D’Sa 29:46

Yeah, yeah. Okay. So, I want to take us from this example to how we make it. What we’ve been talking about practical and applicable for somebody, a manager, a CEO, a COO working with an executive team, somebody who’s embarking on a goal-setting process. What advice would you have for that person?

Trevor Hunter 30:11

Yeah. So, the first piece of advice I would give is that a specific goal is better than a fuzzy goal, and a fuzzy goal is better than no goal. Put something out there. And the more specific you can make it, the more you can generate a hypothesis based on that goal, the better. It doesn’t have to be a good goal. I don’t care. When I coach people, I don’t care if it’s a good goal. Just I don’t. If it’s a bad goal, you’ll learn faster. You’ll see real quickly, like, “This isn’t making sense. We’re not learning anything from this.” If it’s a “perfect” goal, then you will start to see consistent learning, consistent synthesis, consistent things that, for a lot of my clients, tend to surprise themselves. So, one piece of advice is just pick something, make it specific enough that you can actually create a hypothesis based on it and start acting against it. That’s one. And then the second piece of advice is the closer in the future you can make it, given constraints. Investors expect things, lots of people expect things. So, given constraints, the closer in the future you can make it, the shorter the time horizon you can operate in, the faster you will learn. You can still have the mission, you can still have the big goal in the background. Nothing is saying you can’t. When I’m talking about a goal, I mean the thing you are actively pursuing right now. The closer it is, the faster you’ll be able to test your assumptions, the faster you’ll be able to test your model of the world and yourself, the faster you’ll be able to learn.

Angie D’Sa 32:01

And I think, then implicit in what you’re saying, if I’m putting myself in the shoes of somebody who’s responsible for a goal-setting process in an organization, is this idea of goals being loosely held and systematically reevaluated based on the learning. Because if you’re picking goals without a lot of scrutiny and worrying about whether they’re the right goals, and the point is learning, then probably you’re going to change those goals over time, either because your standards are getting better or you understand your constraints more or whatever it is. So, one of the things that I perceive in my experience, and when I work with clients, is often missing from a goal-setting process is not just measuring against the goal, but evaluating whether the goal still makes sense.

Trevor Hunter 32:51

If you gave me the option between having an excellent goal-setting process or having an excellent goal management process, I would pick excellent goal management every time. Goal setting, to me, when I work with clients, more often than not, is like an anxious replacement for the fact that the management systems aren’t working.

Angie D’Sa 33:15

Yeah, yeah. Okay, so I didn’t tell you I was going to ask you this question. But, but since you are such a widely read person, Trevor, if others listening or watching want to know which authors or what studies have informed your thinking to come to your contrarian “goals or bullshit” perspective, what should they pick up and read?

Trevor Hunter 33:43

This one is more radical than I am, but I still love it. In fact, I treasure it.

Angie D’Sa 33:47

Oh, hello! I didn’t know you were going to be able to give us a visual aid. I’m glad we’re on video.

Trevor Hunter 33:54

So, a book I’d like to talk about is “Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned” by Kenneth O. Stanley and Joel Lehman. They are AI specialists. I read that book over Christmas, and I really, really liked it. They are more extreme than I am in terms of their beliefs about goals being bullshit in all forms. I am a little skeptical of the realities of managing a complex organization with a completely “goals are bullshit” mentality, moreso than them. But the way they walk through the nature of goals and the nature of human creativity, and how to build the most significant, novel, and revolutionary things with a goalless orientation, I found very, very intriguing. Not 100% convincing, but largely very convincing. So I’ve recommended that book to too many people at this point. So, listeners…

Angie D’Sa 35:11

It’ll be in the show notes. Alright, Trevor, this is the part of my script where I say, “Do you have a clever, funny closing statement? Want to give us a final, final thought on goals?”

Trevor Hunter 35:31

Is this just the other end of the dad joke?

Angie D’Sa 35:37

For those who don’t know, in our organization, at Talentism, in the first two minutes of any meeting of mine, it’s a dad joke.

Trevor Hunter 35:46

And I love it.

Angie D’Sa 35:50

This is the opportunity if there’s anything that we didn’t get to on the topic of goals and your evolving thinking on how to use them, that you can share.

Trevor Hunter 36:02

I mean, just to try things. Are there things I didn’t talk about? Sure. I’m shocked I didn’t talk about monkeys once. But there’s a lot to goals, there’s even more to humans, and there’s a lot to each individual. So, the real, I apologize, this isn’t funny, but the real revolution in thinking, I think, to use a term I’m uncomfortable with, is there’s just never going to be a right answer. There’s no best practice, there’s no right answer, there’s no thing you’re going to discover which unlocks the future for you for all time. Everything is just too messy. You’re too messy, I’m too messy, the world’s too messy. And what that means is that the more you are judging yourself or pressuring yourself to find that answer, the more you’re just wasting your own potential, I think. And we’re all guilty, I’m certainly guilty of it. But that mess is just a tremendous opportunity to surprise yourself. And I know for a lot of us who work at Talentism and who coach, that many of our most rewarding moments are when our clients in their explorations discover things about themselves that they just didn’t know were possible. They discover things about people they work with that they didn’t know were possible. And to me, that’s the greatest thing you can find out, to find out what you’re capable of that you didn’t know. And goals are where you can find those things.

Angie D’Sa 38:10

That one hit me right between the ventricles. As someone who is prone to the end of the spectrum of setting goals I know I can achieve, because the reward signal in the systems I’ve operated in is to achieve, to get the gold star. What’s exciting to me about what we talked about today is, yeah, set crazy ass goals and see what you learn from doing that. See what you might be capable of when you’re actually scared of the goal that you set. Thank you, Trevor, for being on this podcast for the first time.

Trevor Hunter 38:50

Thank you, Angie. I felt safe.

Angie D’Sa 38:55

Alright. Thanks, everyone.

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