When planning any important activities, projects or the future of our organisations, the historic approach has always been to set long term goals. We determine where we want to be in say, 3 or 5 years’ time, and set our plans accordingly. The problem with this approach is that the pace of change is increasing, meaning that many of these goals will become obsolete well before that timescale is reached. This is particularly true when it comes to plans utilizing new approaches and new technologies like online collaboration. This is an area where even a year may be too short a timescale.
The problem with long term goals
“Goals beyond 90 days increase the level of procrastination” USC Mind & Society Centre.
The problem with long term goals is that they encourage you to focus on how far away those goals are! They make you think about how much work and time you still have to get there. This is not very motivating and, from an action point of view – static, as they tend not to change even when it is very apparent that the point has long gone (This is especially true for long-term technology projects.)
What worked in the past will not work in the future
Trying to fit old thinking into new situations is discouraging, stressful and demotivating. And it slows you down.
Over the past 30 years, the world has changed radically, and the pace of change is increasing. Approaches that worked even 5 years ago are no longer relevant. In the world of information management, for example we now have computing everywhere, advanced analytics and cloud computing. Few organisations rely only on paper stored in a cupboard anymore. Data is everywhere, so assumptions from the past about how to manage it are obsolete.
New thinking, new methodologies and new ways of exploiting what exists now are essential components to determining what your goals should be. Because you don’t know what will be around the corner, short term goal setting allows you to think and act at the same speed as these changes.
No more multitasking
Do you have a problem with projects over-running? Is your productivity below what you think it could be? It isn’t because your team is not working hard – they probably are. If you are trying to do lots of things at once, working towards a long term vision/goal., you are suffering from the cost of context switching.
While we might like to think we are good at multitasking, we really aren’t. The reason? Context switching.
Context switching is the time lost to reacquaint yourself with the next project or task. Gerald Wineberg, in Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking calculated the waste caused by switching between projects as follows.
|Number of projects||% of time available per project
|Loss to context switching|
Context switching also applies to switching between tasks, meetings and other activities, but applies particularly to any significant piece of work, like working towards a goal.
Step 1: Determine your long term direction/vision
We are surprising bad at strategy. According to a recent study by Harvard Business School, 61% of business owners fail because of poor strategy and execution.
A lot of this is down to using SMART goals. The problem with SMART goals is that they tend to be too simplistic. Because SMART goals aim to be ‘measurable’, they may define outcomes that will be irrelevant in 3 years’ time.
Do you want to be the market leader in your sector? Perhaps you want to reach £1 million within the next 5 years. Whatever it is, you need to commit heart and soul to it. Don’t worry that you might change your mind in the future. It only matters that you are committed to it NOW.
Step 2: Identify one current short term goal
The great thing about taking a short-term approach is that it focusses your mind on immediate action, which tends to be more motivating, deliver more immediate results and to encourage creative thinking. If your goal turns out to be the wrong goal e.g. because the business or political environment has changed, you can change it in 90 days’ time. So your activity becomes current, agile, and dynamic. You think about how far you have come, not how far you still have to go.
You take your long-term vision and identify the strategic short-term goal that will move you in the right direction over the next 90 days. This should be something that takes you a significant and measurable way towards your long-term vision, and something you can achieve within 90 days. For example, your goal could be eliminating your negative cash flow, converting one key service to a product or successfully running a training course. This will be your primary focus for the next 90 days, so pick something that really matters.
Step 3: focus, focus, focus
This is the hard part. You will get distracted by other cool ideas, worry that you can’t achieve it or just plain distracted by life in general. It may help to have someone else rooting for you to achieve your goal e.g. a trusted colleague, a partner or a mentor. They will keep reminding you of your goal and give you someone to talk when you are stuck or feel yourself going off track. They’ll also help you celebrate at the end of your 90 days!