Key Lessons from Decision Science
Was the 2003 Iraq War a great victory? Saddam Hussain was removed from power in less than a month, which led some to promptly declare the invasion a success.
But this misses the point. The true strategic goals of the invasion should have been (and possibly were at some point) security in the Middle East and the wellbeing of the Iraqi people. And instead of this, the invasion achieved the rise of Al Qaeda and then ISIS, hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties and the destabilization of Syria and the region more generally.
Neglecting to properly define and retain focus on strategic goals lies at the heart of many failures. Setting a single goal gives focus, and can provide a ‘north star’ for any organisation. Less can be more when we need to achieve great things. But, in truth, a sole objective is a rare luxury. A school must care about educational attainment and wellbeing – and consider the appropriate focus on each. A pharmaceutical or consumer goods company must sell lots of their existing products but also create new ones.
Good decision-making is virtually impossible without clarity on the goals being pursued and on which goals are most important. After all, it is only once goals are defined that organisations can harness either intuitive or scientific approaches to assess the optimal path to achieving them.
Unfortunately, goal setting can be harder than it sounds. For organisations, it requires clarifying and being honest about competing goals and then finding ways to thrash out the right balance of priorities (and compromises) given the precise context. It requires tough choices about what is not your focus. It means finding ways to facilitate complex conversations about values, beliefs and evidence.
Sadly, these conversations are often seen as ‘too difficult’ – even though without them, it is very difficult to achieve the genuine collaboration, shared vision and prioritized objectives that can provide the platform for sound strategic and day-to-day decision-making.
As in organisations, individuals can also duck the tricky task of goal-setting. But goal setting does appear to work – even according to the brilliantly sceptical evidence-based HR practitioner Rob Briner. One of the most cited sources of authority on the subject is Locke and Latham – who long ago suggested goals need to have four key attributes to support success:
- Clarity. It has to be clear what the goal is, a reason many advocate SMART goal-setting processes which specify how and when goals will be achieved, and ensure realism.
- Challenge. Set a goal that stretches, as these are better than easy or ‘do your best’ goals. Be particularly careful to be realistic about what is required to achieve complex goals – particularly when achieving goals depends on external factors.
- Commitment. Ensure the goal is genuinely motivating to those who need to deliver it – not always easy, and worth taking time on!
- Feedback. If you can track progress and evaluate what is working, you can build momentum and motivation, as well as change tactics for achieving goals as you go.
As ever, the right way of approaching goal setting will vary depending on your situation. Some will find goals – particular if imposed on them – deeply demotivating. Others will happily set themselves goals that actually work against their core values. But overall, the benefits of goal clarity will far outweigh the disadvantages. If you want to make good decisions every day this year, you’ll need to be clear on what you’re trying to achieve…