List of failed goals.

A round month of failures, part of a quarter of failures.

I think about big questions for years at a time.  One of the questions that I’ve chewed on since my twenties is about goals.   What’s a better kind of goal: a process goal or a results oriented goal?

Process goals you can control. You set a target focused on the process of achieving a goal. You say, “My goal is to go the gym 20 times this month.” These kinds of goals are focused on the journey, not on the results.

But focusing on the journey is a huge problem, because you should care about the results. The reason you set a goal is to achieve a result. Another problem with process goals is that by focusing on controllable actions you inherently limit your capacity to grow. You don’t need to reach beyond who you are today to achieve a process goal. Going to the gym 20 times is simply a replication of your current thinking with a certain consistency. To achieve your underlying goal of being thinner, you may need to change your workout, change your diet, your eating schedule, or your environment.

Results oriented goals on the other hand, are hard nosed, bottom line focused goals. You say, “My goal is to have 11% body fat.” Results oriented goals are inherently a mix of things you can control and things you can’t control. You can always control your behavior, but if you knew how to have 11% body fat, you would already have it, and have a process goal setup to maintain it, or you would have abandoned it because you don’t like that lifestyle. Results oriented goals foster innovation. You have to figure shit out. You have to grow and become someone else than who you are today. They’re inherently hard and motivating because of it.

Last year, I set a goal of getting 30 customer interviews. Not all interviews are equally attainable. For example, B2C interviews are easy, interviews in an existing network like an industry you’ve worked in are relatively easy, cold B2B interviews are more challenging, and some special industries are really difficult. The industry I was targeting was pharma, which I quickly realized is extremely difficult. I worked and worked and eventually had to change my criteria from “customer” to just “interviews” including suppliers, associated employees, contractors, and partners of the target customer. I hustled and spent around $11,000 on various approaches including flying across the country to 2 industry conferences. I learned a lot about research and getting answers and I made my goal days before the deadline. It was a huge, stressful, growth experience. (…And sadly the result was that I determined pharma was not a good market to target for us.)

However, results oriented goals have their own set of flaws:

  • You can fail at results oriented goals, and actually, most of what you’ll do will be a failure because almost nothing works (which is why we’re not surrounded by a sea of people with 6 packs, lingerie model love interests, and Lamborghinis.)
  • If you focus on results oriented goals you can actually train yourself to fail- making failure your new normal. Which sucks both from an emotional perspective and from a standpoint of habits.
  • You can fail while working really hard to succeed. This can become a blackhole for your time, energy, and attention at the cost of other goals.
  • You can’t control results and only influence them. They often occur in a chaotic environment ruled to various degrees by luck (what are the chances of you finding the right advice for you on your diet research to lose weight? 10% at 20 hours of research, 30% at 75 hours, 90% at 500 hours, etc.)

This year, I set a goal of getting 40 people on a brand new email list in a target niche using paid ads. I dumped time and money into it, just like the 30 pharma interviews. It ate up my attention as I failed to get traction and I ignored other achievable goals. Eventually, not only did I fail at it, but I also failed at the other goals I had back-burnered for the last minute. At the end of all this, I felt pretty shitty. I had worked and worked and instead of vindication I was still sitting at the starting line with not one, but several failures.

Question the Model

I thought about my big goal question again afterwards while on a month sabbatical traveling by train through Japan. I stared out the window at the shifting fall colors covering steep Japanese mountains and the turquoise rivers that the train followed between them. I mulled it over and turned it around while I watched the tile roofs of Japanese homes slide by in the east coast suburbs. Then, in Tokyo, while attending a small business conference I had a realization. My mental models of process versus results oriented goals were limited.

You can have innovation and grow with goals you can control. It’s not an either/or. I didn’t have to play a game with fortune and endure failure after failure or choose to stagnate with limited thinking.

What it comes down to is this: play winnable games.

Opt out of poker and opt in to chess.

Innovation should be part of the process of goal setting:

  1. You set yourself up for growth by innovating as a process.
  2. Then you execute according to controllable and winnable objectives.

Goals Redux

Prior to my sabbatical, I had re-used my goal for the next quarter:

“Add 40 people to our email list.”

After I returned, I changed this goal to the following:

Troubleshoot our Paid Campaigns

  • Create a brief of our statistics so far.
  • Create 2 hypothesis to test on why the campaigns haven’t worked so far.
  • Breakdown problem areas into components
  • Seek feedback from 2-3 Facebook paid experts
  • Test #1 (Has to be completed within this quarter)
  • Test #2 (Has to be completed within this quarter)

This is a winnable game. I can control all of these activities. The timeframe to do it in was challenging- I had 6 weeks to accomplish this *and* my other goals and my already set into play work efforts.

What happened after I reset the goal was interesting.

I was busier than a one legged man in an alligator pit:

  • We exhibited at 2 conferences.
  • We created marketing collateral for both.
  • I developed a product and launched it.
  • I hired a VA.
  • I handled a client crisis
  • …And I did all the normal sales and strategy work I do for our clients.
  • …And there were two holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, so our team wasn’t 100%.

I was pretty sure this goal was going to be impossible to reach a couple different times during the month. There was just too much non-goal urgent and important work springing up. It was making it really tough to get the feedback I needed in time to run the tests.

I scheduled a call with a Facebook ads expert though and fit it in. Because I had committed to talking with him I found some time to create the brief. He told me that we were likely off on our targeting and suggested running a test on Linked In (Hypothesis 1).

I had achieved a significant part of the objectives, but because I believed our targeting might be off I realized that the work and time needed to run the second test was not likely to happen. When I envisioned the goal originally, I had anticipated running tests on Facebook, making tweaks, not rebuilding or starting on a whole new platform.

But even though I believed it was probably wasted effort, I found some time to run a simple LinkedIn test and scheduled 2 more calls with different experts, achieving a little more of the goal.

One of the experts agreed with the first person’s assessment and had some alternate tactics. The other disagreed and recommended running alternate tests on Facebook focusing on a different hypothesis: that the landing page was missing the mark and not the targeting (Hypothesis 2).

Suddenly, the goal became achievable again. I could run tests on 2 different platforms at the same time. I found time to run the second test and I felt great- I had won!

As a bonus, we are now quickly adding people to our email list. The third guy was right. At this rate, even though we only have 10 days left in the quarter we may hit 40 new addresses. It’s the start of a new channel for us.

The fact that one of the tactics worked isn’t the point though. The point is that I played a winnable game. It was still difficult, it still fostered growth, and it still guided my decisions. Even if we weren’t adding new email addresses and both tests were failures, I would still feel good because I had achieved a meaningful improvement while avoiding being controlled by chance.