A Business Model With No Goals


Joe Sundby

January 3, 2014

Goals are good, right? They can help you increase your sales, or shave a minute off your mile. We wouldn’t have world-class athletes or American Idol champions without goals. Yet I can’t seem to buy the hype.

Particularly in business, I don’t believe goals are universally helpful. “No goals” does not equate to “no success.” Quite the contrary, it means you’re not limited by goals.

Consider this belief: “You’ll never get anywhere unless you know where you’re going.” It seems logical, but it’s far from it. If I go outside and walk in a random direction, feeling free to change course when it suits me, I will end up somewhere. And if I’m paying attention, I’ll have learned a few new things about my neighborhood. Similarly, setting your sites on one goal limits your actions. Your path is chosen, so you don’t have room to explore new territory. You have to follow the plan, even when you get excited about something else.

Goals can have other unintended negative consequences, too. Goals Gone Wild, a paper co-written in 2009 by professors from four universities, posits that asking employees to reach corporate goals can have some seriously ill effects. The authors identified side effects associated with goal setting, including “a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, distorted risk preferences, a rise in unethical behavior, inhibited learning, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.”

Too much emphasis on goals can scare us into deceptive behavior or narrow our scope of opportunity. We’ve all seen it. Teachers told to increase test scores have been caught fudging the numbers. Agencies that have kept with the goal of being the best at TV spots have totally missed opportunities that came with the digital revolution.

The Goals Gone Wild authors recommend thinking of goals as “a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.” Is the goal too specific? Too stressful? If so, rethink it, or you’re bound to suffer an overdose.

How do you succeed without goals?

You hire people with drive and desire. You support and inspire them and yes, guide them toward success, but don’t get too caught up in what it will look like. No blanket-statement directions like, “Let’s get four new clients this month.” It could earn you a dubious distinction on par with Alec Baldwin’s blowhard-sales-manager character in the film Glengarry Glen Ross whose “always be closing” mantra earned him little more than blank stares. This isn’t how business works anymore, thankfully.

So manage by example. Work hard, staying alert and attuned to new opportunities. Offer regular feedback and collaboration.

While you’re at it, forget policies and procedures. They are goals in sheep’s clothing.

Policies, systems, and procedures, you’re not working. You’re planning to work. Of course need to do some planning, but then get the hell back to work.

At Roundhouse we have infrastructure, IT, and human resources. Other than that, we stick to a few core values. Nothing is mandated beyond being nice and working hard. After a few weeks or months here, employees tend to stop thinking about how they fit in and start helping evolve the company with the rest of us. They learn on the job while contributing their own experience, which can only make them more vital. They aren’t paralyzed by a five-step procedure on how to produce a video or execute a photo shoot.

Don’t be afraid of chaos

If your culture is too chaotic, nothing gets done. But if it’s too procedural it’s not creative or productive. Letting go of these constraints can let you respond quickly to change and roll out new programs within weeks or days. The boss can approve quick changes with a nod. We find the work more exciting, cutting edge and successful when we don’t follow rules. We want our people to create their own rules by honing their problem-solving abilities.

To keep your edge, you need fewer goals and policies, and maybe a little more chaos. Avoid that rigid “the way it’s done” thing. Instead, ask, “Why do we have to do it that way?” And then do it cooler, faster and better.

Joe Sundby is co-founder, executive creative director and partner at Roundhouse, a creative agency in Portland, Oregon that specializes in every realm of advertising, design and interactive.

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