The Trouble With Goals

Why motivating ‘creatives’ takes more than straight-line thinking.

Lots of people miss goals. I’ve been one of them. But we keep playing the game, bowing to the ritual while the “setters” of the goals continue moving the targets just beyond our reach. As the “accepters” of these goals, we walk away with a resigned shrug.

Goals are supposed to motivate us. In many instances, though, they do just the opposite – even when we’re allowed to set our own. Still, some of us don’t feel compelled by distant, abstract and artificially constructed targets. Despite all the books that argue aggressive goals are the lynchpin to accomplishing anything extraordinary, the fact is that many people don’t operate that way. Some just aren’t motivated by goals, and those who are don’t understand that not everybody is like them.

Goal setting is a linear process, premised on the idea that a person can maintain focus over a goal horizon. When the horizons are long, the goal-setting approach also presupposes that the goal will still make sense at the end. Goals appeal to a left-brain, engineering mentality.

They’re an anathema, however, to creative types, people whose walks through life aren’t a series of straight lines. Instead, these right-brain thinkers wander and see patterns along the way. Sometimes these patterns prove to be the pathways to the overwhelming successes that most others miss.

After reading a number of Walter Isaacson’s biographies, I believe that Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs were wired like these creative, meandering types. Goals for these people can be their biggest downfall. To them, goals are limits – or worse ceilings – imposed by someone else and artificially designate a person’s highest and best ways to contribute to the organization’s future. Goals for “creatives” are neither motivators nor opportunities for large payoffs. Rather, they act as confirmation that their organizations fail to appreciate who they are and intentionally, or unintentionally, set them up for failure.

The key point is that both kinds of people – left brain linear and right brain wandering thinkers – are important in your business. But goals only work with one of these types. The methods for inspiring and motivating the others must be different, and they’re not necessarily “spreadsheet-able” in the way that goal structures usually suggest.

Triangulating cues from Mike Toth, leader of one of the fashion world’s top branding firms, Toth + Co, and from others like him, it’s clear that motivating creatives takes three kinds of actions from the person at the top.

The first is taking the time to help people see the big picture, to understand what’s most important to the business over the long run and why. This is not about the financials but rather about “the soul” of the business.

The second is modeling the behavior you seek. Most creative people are visual rather than auditory or numbers oriented. The best way to motivate them is to show them the processes and outcomes you’re hoping to create and help them imagine what it would feel like to do the same things themselves.

The third is to listen. Here you might consider initiating one of my old tricks: lunch with the CEO. Invite people to group lunches at which you update your big-picture thinking and ask for help in improving the images, as well as for ideas about moving forward. Encourage people to send you their thoughts, and make time to talk with them about their ideas. Take notes as they talk and review your notes in your 60-minute sessions.

Sure, our investors, bankers, accountants and half our staffs need goals. But the process annoys half of the organization. Recognize the difference and use the right tools for the right job: You’ll never sculpt a statue with a table saw.