Insights

Should you set goals for your digital workplace?

November 02, 2016

The answer is not obvious. Will your digital workplace goals lead to new levels of productivity and performance or missed opportunities and bad behavior? In this article, we highlight recent research on goal setting and share four important considerations for the design of your digital workplace.

If you’re in the position to up-level your digital workplace, where do you start? How do you prioritize competing opinions on what role it should play and how it should work?  How do you account for the changing nature of business; ensuring that tools, work practices and information introduced to the digital workplace are relevant to participants now and in the future?

Setting goals for the digital workplace isn’t easy.  The process can be an ugly affair: political, messy and vague.  Approach is not one-size-fits-all either.  If you happen to work in a very dynamic industry, situational context might change before updates to your digital workplace even hit the light of day.  Or perhaps dependencies are not well understood – a well-intentioned goal may lead to other unexpected outcomes.

Dr Edwin Locke and Dr Gary Latham are renowned for their research in goal setting theory.  Conducted over four decades, their research found powerful evidence that:

  • specific and difficult goals resulted in higher levels of performance than when employees were given easy goals or no goals at all
  • urging employees to “do their best” was insufficient in eliciting specific behavior
  • feelings of success in the workplace arise when attaining goals that are important and meaningful

Sounds appealing! A strong rationale to begin carving out SMART goals starting today.

Not so fast…

A Harvard-published working paper, Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting, argued that the beneficial effects of goal setting are overstated and that dangerous side-effects could arise such as:

  • narrowed focus that neglects non-goal areas
  • a rise in unethical behavior through attempts to game the goal
  • distorted risk preferences
  • corrosion of organizational culture
  • reduced intrinsic motivation as employees are encouraged and rewarded to pursue management-mandated objectives

The paper’s authors, Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, Max H. Bazerman – suggest that goals are widely over-prescribed – and much like medication, the goals setting process “requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.”

As “Complicated” gives way to “Complex”

In the book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, General Stanley McChrystal journaled his experiences commanding the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq.  The highly disciplined, hierarchical machine that was the U.S. military was thoroughly challenged in their efforts against Al Qaeda.  Despite superior equipment, training and numbers, the military’s approach borne out of the scientific management movement struggled with Al Qaeda’s decentralized structure, speed and flexibility.

McChrystal and his team came to realize that they needed to embrace a different operational rhythm, communication paradigm and management philosophy. Central command was too slow to make relevant decisions for the front lines.  Individual teams were terrifically effective at meeting their group goals but as a whole, they were still losing the war.

The rate of external change facing the task force was such that the situation was no longer complicated like a machine that can be broken down into component parts and optimized… but complex like a weather system.  Too many variables and dependencies made visibility into the future and capacity to control and plan for it in the longer term prone to fail.

McChrystal re-architected the task force’s structure and culture – embracing an approach that was more fluid to change and open.  He describes the need for a more immediate, real-time “shared consciousness” that empowered employees to act independently and quickly while maintaining alignment with organizational purpose.

Drawing the map as you go

Cal Newport offered further insight into the matter in his article, Do Goals Prevent Success, highlighting the research of Saras Sarasvathy.

Effectuation, a theory of entrepreneurial success posits that there is an identifiable pattern to the behavior of successful entrepreneurs.  Rather than beginning with a goal and immediately defining the optimal path to success, the process of effectuation adopted by these entrepreneurs is emergent.  From Newport’s blog:

“Causal thinking has you try to draw a map to a peak in advance. Given the complexity of the landscape, this is likely to fail. Your best bet is that your map, by pure luck, happens to lead you straight to a high peak.

Effectual thinking, by contrast, has you hone your navigation skills. It teaches you how to systematically search the landscape around you, bringing along guides that know the area, and keeping you attention tuned to the tell-tale signs of elevation gain.”

Win the war, climb the mountain – are these not goals?  I think they are.  Much more than Locke and Latham’s ask to “do your best,” but not so prescriptive in approach that their success is thwarted by their specificity in the face of rapidly changing context.

Constructing a digital workplace with maximum strategic impact

What’s to be learned from all of this?

  1. Goal setting capacity hinges on rate of external change – you must assess where the business fits along the spectrum from the highly predictable to the chaotic before attempting to construct them. If operational context falls in the complex or chaotic end of the spectrum, goals should be looser and the digital workplace must be designed for flexibility, environmental sensing and multidirectional communication.  If the business operates in a predictable context, SMART goals might do well in a digital workplace designed to standardize and automate.
  2. Consider the consequences before prescribing the goal – Ordóñez, Schweitzer, Galinsky and Bazerman point out catastrophic outcomes of over-emphasized or ill-considered goals.  Could broadcasting performance in digital dashboards encourage gaming the system and unethical behavior?  Does bringing focus on a particular message obscure potentially important new information?  Is the pursuit of structured performance goals online eclipsing opportunities for learning?  Careful analysis of any goals imposed on the digital workplace should be explored on a regular basis.
  3. Synchronize the whole team – goals may be met at the team level but not organizationally. What may be good for part of the organizations may not be good for the whole. The digital workplace plays a unique role in coordination across teams.  The design must do more than replicate organizational silos; providing ample opportunities for contributing to and understanding the big picture – essentially gaining McChrystal’s “shared consciousness.”
  4. Mapping the landscape – Conscious design choices can be made to encourage effectuation via the digital workplace: environmental signals can be made available, a culture of continuous learning can be fostered online and strategies for treating the digital workplace as a program that learns and adapts rather than a one-time project can be adopted. Another very important way to weave the concept of effectuation into the digital workplace is to empower participants to craft their own solutions; there should be some degree of capability for “citizen developers” to make their own tools – and address emerging goals - as needs arise.

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