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The Art and Science of Goal Setting

Big ambition without concrete objectives is just dreaming and concrete objectives without big ambition could just be another way of standing still. Put them together though, and you could reach the moon.

He wished he could buy more time, but he was too low on fuel to slow the descent any further. Twenty feet to go. He'd stopped the backward drift but still wrestled with a sideways motion that had crept in. They were flying the dead man's curve now, too low to abort if the engine quit, but in the back of his mind he knew that if that happened they'd be okay, they would just fall onto the moon. Dust blew furiously . . . Then there was a moment of quiet, and the two men turned to one another in the tiny cabin. Their eyes met, their bearded faces grinned at each other inside bubble helmets, and their gloved hands clasped. . . . "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle as landed."

Almost 7 years prior:

"We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things - not because they are easy, but because they are hard." His voice rang with energy and confidence; his words soared above the sound of applause. "Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our abilities and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win..."

The passages above from A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin exemplify a goal and the successful achievement of the goal. Calling it a stretch goal would be somewhat of an understatement. It was only 6 months before President Kennedy set the challenge that John Glenn, and America, had orbited the earth for the first time.  The technology or the human ability to travel to the moon, far beyond earth orbit, were complete unknowns.  And of course, as President Kennedy made sure to remark in his speech, the goal was not only to reach the moon, but also come back safely. They could've just said- can't be done, and called it a day.  But they didn't.  Instead they achieved an impossible goal.  How?  I'll get back to that.

S.M.A.R.T. Goals

 In 1981, George T. Dolan, published the paper, "There's a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management's Goals and Objectives." Objectives, he believed, should be defined to meet a set of criteria defined by the acronym S.M.A.R.T.

  • Specific: target a specific area for improvement
  • Measurable: quantify, or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  • Assignable: specify who will do it. 
  • Realistic: state what results can realistically be achieved given available resources.
  • Time-related: specify when the result can be achieved.

The paper was based on the work by Dr. Edwin Locke and Dr. Gary Latham.  Their research found that having achievable, measurable and specific goals were far better at motivating achievement versus vague " do better" type of goals.   They researched and conducted hundreds of studies that proved specific goals had a much higher rate of success than vague or abstract goals.

General Electric has integrated S.M.A.R.T into their culture for every individual in the organization.  The five elements of S.M.A.R.T. forces them to turn aspirations into concrete plans.  Jack Welch, former CEO, has attributed much of their success to fully embracing this approach.  In the late 1980's, GE had two divisions that were not doing well.  They thought perhaps the two divisions were just not applying S.M.A.R.T. When internal consultants visited the divisions they found that the employees fully embraced S.M.A.R.T. and were executing the methodology, literally to the letter. However, they found that the goals, in many cases, were detailed but trivial.  Easily achievable and crossed off the list when done.

Cognitive Closure and Homeostasis

The human mind wants certainty and is averse to ambiguity and the unknown - psychologist refer to this as cognitive closure.  A heightened sense of cognitive closure can cause someone to grab onto the easiest tasks, freeze on a path regardless of changing information, and focus exclusively on finishing a task or project rather than the outcome.  The good feeling of checking off the completed task becomes an end rather than a means. 

Similar to the body, the mind, wants to reach an equilibrium or a status quo - this is called homeostasis.  A more down to earth way to say the same thing is to be in a comfort zone.  Anders Ericsson has been studying expertise and human performance for decades.  He has coined the term deliberate practice as the defining approach that separates the highest performers in any field from the average.  He found that practicing the same thing over and over for hours and hours in sports, music, dance and other fields will not achieve the highest level of performance.  It's only when you combine the thousands of hours with continuously moving away from your comfort zone (a key component of deliberate practice) that you can truly achieve the highest level of performance.  He sees this as fighting homeostasis - when going beyond the comfort zone,  the body and mind have to change to compensate and get back to equilibrium.  Grow muscles, improve hand/eye coordination, increase flexibility, improve memory, etc. 

Stretch Goals

GE asked Steve Kerr, an expert in the psychology of goal setting, to help.  He found the two divisions, in nuclear energy and aircraft engine industries, were both facing very tough economic times.  Executives and staff were using the achievement of short term easy goals to help try to overcome a demoralizing situation.  GE decided to use another process they had been designing called Work-Out.  It starts with a highly ambitious goal or stretch goal. Stretch goals have been shown to motivate people to innovate and improve productivity in many ways to achieve the desired goal.  Sometimes this involves hiring new skills, reorganizing groups and reinventing processes because that is what is needed to achieve the goal. The stretch goal would fail the S.M.A.R.T. criteria in most cases and also cause panic. However, when it's broken down into smaller goals that follow S.M.A.R.T. approach it combines getting out of the comfort zone with the need for cognitive closure.

Project Gemini

This post began with the landing of Apollo 11's lunar module (Eagle) with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard on July 20, 1969.  It was the achievement of the goal that John F. Kennedy made public in his speech at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962.  It was a monumental achievement, eloquently stated by Armstrong as " one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind"  and watched by over 600 million people back on earth.  It was the culmination of a decade long effort from over 400,000 people broken down into thousands of incremental achievement of thousands of goals. There were tragic moments along the way, but after the final mission, Apollo 17, they had proved man can travel to another planet or moon, reach the moons orbit, launch vehicles to the surface and drive many miles away from the base, spend days living there, walking and bouncing along the surface and eventually leave and return to Earth safely.

Project Gemini preceded Project Apollo as a bridge to the moon. Gemini had four main goals:

  • to test an astronaut's ability to fly long-duration missions (up to two weeks in space)
  • to understand how spacecraft could rendezvous and dock in orbit around the Earth and the moon
  • to perfect re-entry and landing methods
  • to further understand the effects of longer space flights on astronauts.  

It was broken up into 12 missions to achieve incremental steps towards achieving or directly achieving one of the goals noted above.  It wasn't 12 missions to practice getting to the moon but rather each one had a specific goal that when put together would make Apollo 11 successful.  Each one was still filled with peril and incredible achievement on it's own. The first mission was unmanned and intentionally destroyed during reentry after achieving earth orbit. The second mission was to test the heat shield.  The third was a manned flight to test three earth orbits.  Gemini IV had the first space walk (extravehicular activity) lasting for 22 minutes.  Gemini V lasted for almost 8 days to test long human space flight required to go to the moon.  Gemini VIA and VII accomplished the first space rendezvous.  Gemini VIII accomplished the first docking with another vehicle.  Gemini XII rendezvoused and docked manually and kept station while Buzz Aldrin set an EVA record of 5 hours and 30 minutes . In the same way the Apollo project was a series of missions incrementally building on the skills and technology required to finally land on the moon in Apollo 11 and then do more each mission up to the final Apollo 17. 

Combining stretch goals and S.M.A.R.T. goals can help motivate us  go outside of our comfort zone but still use a methodology that fits with our innate need for closure and stability.  It can turn seemingly ambitious or even impossible vague dreams into a series of pragmatic plans and goals that help us achieve our own moonshots.

For further reading and the primary sources for the post:

1. A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaiken
2. Why We Need Answers by Maria Konnikova
3. Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg
4. Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool