Happy October! Long-term readers of the Coaching Letter will know that I try and write something about goals every year at around this time. Goal-setting is, I think, one of the most poorly understood constructs in education. So this Coaching Letter is a re-hash of several previous CLs, especially Coaching Letter #91.
Goals are not an unmitigated good. There is an article in HBR that is about the danger of confusing metrics with strategy—that paying too much attention to the target causes people to lose sight of the real goal. This is otherwise known as Campbell’s Law, which I wrote about in Coaching Letter #87. Just as not everyone should be paying attention to the same data, not everyone should have the same goals. Rick Stiggins broke down three levels of data—organizational, program, and classroom—and it helps to think of goals the same way. At the organizational level, there should be goals around high level outcomes, such as graduation rates and literacy scores. But at the program and classroom level, the goals should be about implementation and/or learning how to implement what you expect people to do in order for the organization to meet its goals. Above all, do not ask people to set a goal that is not within their control, and do not ask people to set a performance goal that they do not already know how to meet.
I know from my work with educators in multiple roles that they frequently get the message from their supervisors that the goals matter more than other parts of their plans. For example, I have had many principals tell me over the few years that the only parts of their plans that they receive feedback on are their goals. This is not helpful—see the paragraph immediately following this one. The power of a goal is that it directs attention and signals commitment—and having done that, focus should shift to how the goal is to be met, and what capacity needs to be built in order to implement the strategy, and how the organization is going to learn from its efforts to implement in order to improve its strategy.
Coaching Letter #20 is about how goals are not as important as the strategy required to meet them; and Coaching Letter #169 is a plea to think about process not as a squishy alternative to thinking about goals, but an immutable necessity to reaching your goals: goals are just an outcome of process.
Coaching Letter #21 is a continuation from #20, and focuses on the difference between performance goals and learning goals, which I wrote about as one of the most important big ideas in the canon of organizational development. And here is the link to the one-page excerpt from Seijts et al (2004), which is where I learned about this big idea in the first place. Performance targets are only helpful when the person already knows how to meet the goal, which means that the task you are asking them to perform is purely technical, and how often does that happen in education?
Coaching Letter #51 makes the connection between personal goal-setting and organizational goal-setting, which should make all leaders everywhere think about a) how they think about goals and b) how they think about growth and fixed mindset. People who set learning goals are more likely to be successful than people who set performance goals, and organizations can leverage that relationship by asking their employees to focus on learning goals.
If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
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The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders:Principles and Practices