Speed does not compensate for direction: About setting goals

The book “A little book on goals” by Stefan Söderfjäll and Christoffer Svensson was suggested to me when I asked about some easy-to-read theory on how goals work. As a person, setting goals for me personally and in my after-work projects has always been easy. But I have found that the higher stakes in a commercial organisation, combined with the fear of delegation and the losing of control has made goal setting much harder. I wanted to understand if it really was harder, or if that was just a perception on my part.

I am glad to say that this book really kept its promise. It is very compact and quick and easy to read. There are a handful of chapters that each end with a summary that really hammers home the message. It chooses to take a slightly higher level approach, describing the theory and science more than being a step by step manual but at least for me, that theory was presented in a way that made it very easy to see how I could apply this in my day-to-day job.

As a part of a mentor program I am currently running, I wanted to condense the material even more into a summary of a few pages that can be handed out and then discussed in group. So here is that summary.

To be clear, my goal here is not to accurately summarize the book, but to write a summary on goal setting. So, I will add and change where I see room for improvement.

What is a goal?

A goal is simply a statement that describes a future state that is desirable (Or undesirable, in which case the goal is to just to avoid it). Different people have different need for goals with some people needing and wanting very detailed goals in their private life as well as professional life, while others can work more loosely. But if there is a complete lack of goals, then this results in some or all of chaos, passivity, or stress. For people to work well together, they should share the same goals, or clashes will occur.

The main benefit of goals is that they create motivation and help us make decisions on what to invest our time, effort, and money into.

Types of goals

Goals can be set at one of several layers. We can identify four layers that are useful.

Result-based goals

This is the highest level. A result-based goal relates to some fact in the outside world. The archetypal example is a sales-target or the placement of a team in a tournament. These are real-world results that show a real-world effect. When possible, these are the best types of goals because they allow complete freedom to take any action needed to achieve those goals. But they are also the hardest for several reasons:

  • Results are always also based on actions that are not in our control. A sales target is affected by the economy and the competitors. Tournament results depend on the performance of the opposing teams.
  • In addition, because of their high-level nature, those working to achieve the goals need to have a both broad and deep knowledge of the domain of the goal to be able to make smart decisions that will in fact work towards achieving the goal with high probability.

For this reason, it is advised that this goal type be used in less complex situations, where the outside effects do not muddle the picture too much, and for teams with a high degree of experience and knowledge within the field.

Performance-based goals

These goals take one step back and remove the effects of the outside world. So, the result on a goal like this should only be affected by internal actions. An example is the time it takes to run 100m, regardless of how fast others may run. These goals can be a good compromise as they still measure real-world effects but makes it possible to focus more internally. In addition, the messy outside world means that the relationship between actions and result is clearer, which in turn makes follow-up easier.

Knowledge goals

One step further down are the knowledge goals. Here we no longer measure effects, but simply that the knowledge that we believe that we need can be demonstrated. An example is learning a new language.

The benefit of a goal like this is that it is very much under control by the person doing it, but we are getting quite far from the real-world results. So, in a situation where there is great uncertainty, or the people trying to achieve the goal have very low knowledge about the domain of the goal, this can be a good thing. All involved can agree that this knowledge is needed before we can even know what type of performance or results-based goals are appropriate. So as a starting point a knowledge goal can be set.

Process goals

These are the goals furthest from the results. Here we are simply talking about behaviours that should be exhibited. An example can be how many sales calls a salesperson should make in a day. These goals should be used when the situation is completely unknown. The place where these goals can in fact be valuable over time is for culture and social goals. Here, effects are almost completely impossible to measure and instead agreeing on some habits is the best that can be done. An example would be that we agree that we say good morning to all when we come into the office.

Goals, methods, and psychological needs

Goals can feel either internal or external. Internal goals represent what we want to do. External goals represent what we think that we must do and are generally less powerful over time than the internal goals.

The way we set goals, and feel about them, can heavily influence the famous trio of psychological needs:


By setting difficult by achievable goals and seeing them to completion, we feel competent.


By having goals that we experience as internal, that are on a sufficiently high level, we have great freedom to choose our methods and we feel autonomous.


By sharing goals with others in a group, we can form a team with very powerful inter-personal bonds.

Criteria for effective goal setting

The most important feature of a good goal is clarity, meaning that it is easy to reach consensus about when a goal has been achieved and when it has not. Clarity is helped by keeping both the timeframe and the number of goals short, and making sure that the goals that exist are not contradictory.

Goals should also be difficult, meaning that they are not always achieved. For this to work in reality, it means that there should not be significant punishment for failing to reach a goal. Linking large rewards too tightly to goals can also be counterproductive.

A short feedback cycle allows those working towards the goal to see progress and be inspired to continue, but also to see warning signs when things are not going in the right direction so that corrections can be made early.

Finally, it is important that the goal is perceived as meaningful, or it will not have the ability to engage.

Pitfalls and risks

If a group of people are expected to work together, it is very important that they have a shared goal where everybody’s contribution benefits everybody.

If goals are set too narrowly, or are too easy to achieve, there is a great risk that important actions are missed. Either because they fall outside the narrowly defined goals or are not required to achieve the easy goal target. 

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