Killing the Princess: The Dangers of Goal Lockdown

Remember the Ford Pinto? If you don’t, you are not alone. The Pinto’s history was a troubled one, complete with explosions, fires, and lawsuits. In a nutshell, in the 1970s, Ford committed to building a small, light, inexpensive car. It turned out that while they were so committed to that goal, that they also made a car that was prone to exploding in an accident. Why did that happen? According to management professors Lisa Ordonez, Maurice Schweitzer, Adam Galinsky, and Max Bazerman, it was because the management at Ford set goals.

Wait a minute! Aren’t goals are supposed to be a good thing? Normally, yes. However, Ford’s management was supposedly so committed to their goals that they developed metaphorical tunnel vision. In other words, although they knew there were design problems with the Pinto, they ignored those problems in favor of the more powerful outcome goal they were committed to accomplishing. Interesting concept, but are there other examples?

In fact, yes. According to the same four professors, setting specific, high outcome goals led to dishonest behavior at Sears Auto Repair: by requiring mechanics to generate $147/hour of revenue, the mechanics were effectively incentivized to cheat customers. They also implicate goals in the Enron fiasco of the late 1990s. So, if goals are supposedly such wonderful things to have, how can we explain what happened? While it would be easy and comforting to simply say these four professors are ivory tower academics, that would be unjust and incorrect. In fact, they have a point: the best thing about goals is that you might just accomplish them; and the worst thing about goals is that you might just accomplish them.

To put it another way, goals are powerful tools. Like all power tools, it’s important to know how to use them correctly lest you cut yourself off at the knees. In a very real sense, the rules for goal setting and rules for chess have a great deal in common: both sets of rules are relatively simple, but the strategies for success within those rules are complex. Failing to understand the proper strategies leads to defeat. In the case of goals, it can lead to a phenomenon that I refer to as, “Goal Lockdown.” In Goal Lockdown, people become so fixated on their goals that they ignore all feedback or other information that they might be heading into trouble. Indeed, in extreme cases, they will take any feedback as confirmation that they are on track, even when the feedback is someone yelling, “Hey, didn’t that sign we just passed read ‘Bridge Out?’”

The dangers of improper goals are not limited to giant firms like Ford or Enron. I ran an organizational development serious game for a certain high tech company. This particular serious game takes participants outside of the normal business world, instead presenting them with a fantasy scenario with very real business problems. Instead of playing their normal roles of managers, engineers, salesmen, and so forth, the participants are kings, dukes, knights, wizards, and the like. Participants still must recruit allies, motivate others, negotiate over resources, and solve difficult problems. Changing the scenery, however, makes it fun and increases both learning and retention of the material.

In keeping with the fantasy nature of the scenario, a number of plots involve the princess. Unfortunately, for all those people who had plots, and goals, that included the princess, she was eliminated from the exercise; in other words, figuratively killed. What was particularly interesting, however, was that the people whose goals involved the princess found it extremely difficult to change those goals, even though they had just become impossible! This was Goal Lockdown in action. Fortunately, by experiencing it during the exercise, we were able to discuss it during the debriefing and the people at that company are now on guard against it.

Ultimately, if you don’t want to bother with serious games and if you do want to avoid Goal Lockdown, there are some steps you can take. The simplest is to identify your outcome but then focus on your strategy. How will you accomplish the goals? What are the steps you will take? How will you know you are succeeding and how will you know if you’re failing? A system that doesn’t tell us what failure looks like is a system that we won’t trust under pressure. In the long run, the more we focus on process and how that process will move us towards our objectives, the more likely we are to be successful: we are focusing on the things we can most easily change. It’s when we focus on the result and let the strategy take care of itself that we become most likely to fail, sometimes in very dramatic ways!

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