I have always maintained that you should set rigid goals, goals that are immutable and cannot be altered. Why? Simply because, in my view, trying to achieve a flexible goal seems akin to moving the finishing post in a race. It feels a little like cheating to me. The implication is that if you can’t reach your goal, you just move the finish line closer or make achieving it easier? What’s the point of even trying to achieve your goal if you’re just going to change it to make it simpler? Surely, doing so waters down your achievement as well as the outcome.
However, I thought it best to dig a little deeper to make sure that I wasn’t just being dogmatic. Perhaps there are circumstances in which setting a flexible goal is preferable to a rigid one. And, as often happens, I was surprised by the results of my investigation. It turns out that there is some “wiggle” room on this issue. Allow me to elaborate.
First, What Are Rigid and Flexible Goals?
Before we bogged down in the arguments, let’s start with what rigid and flexible goals are to make sure we’re on the same page.
A rigid goal is one that cannot be changed. It is locked in place and time and is immutable, no matter the circumstances of the goal setter. My position was always that goals should be rigid. A goal is by definition, a challenge, which presupposes that it is rigid and fixed.
A flexible goal, on the other hand, is one that can be changed. Its deadline can be shifted and the conditions of goal achievement can be altered.
In fact, Adam Kreek’s CLEAR goal planning acronym requires that a goal be refinable, or flexible, meaning that it can be modified as the goal setter moves towards it. This characteristic of the CLEAR acronym has drawn some criticism from certain quarters, in part due to this requirement, and rightfully so.
Research conducted by Szu-chi Huang at Stanford University reveals that flexibility influences the decision to adopt a goal in a positive way, giving some credence to the veracity of the claim that goals can potentially be flexible. However, the same research also found that the rigidity of the goal increases the chance of it being successfully completed.
Why You Might Set Flexible Goals
According to various sources, here are a few reasons you may want to set flexible rather than rigid goals.
Firstly, in a business-related environment, especially where a team is striving to achieve a goal, the goal can be relaxed where
- incorrect assumptions were made, or incorrect data was relied on when the goal was established, or
- the expected outcomes are undesired or incorrect, or
- where a team member is struggling to achieve the goal.
I am in two minds about that last point, but in reality, where one member of the team responsible for the achievement of the goal is unable to complete the tasks assigned to them, relaxation of the goal may be considered if it does not impact significantly on the outcome of the entire project, ruining the effort invested by the other team members.
Secondly, where unexpected and unplanned adversity makes the completion of the goal impossible, requiring a ” … spontaneous re-application of skill and ability… “. For example, in the event of a market or regulatory change or where the composition of your team is altered through the illness, pregnancy or resignation of one or more core team members who are crucial for the completion of the goal as it was originally determined.
However, this should only be considered where substantial progress has already been made towards the goal. It would be a shame to throw away the time and effort already invested in achieving the goal rather than simply altering the goal itself.
What is important in this second point is that goal be relaxed only if it is objectively impossible and not simply more difficult. If it is more difficult, a small alteration such as the pushing back of the goal deadline would be preferable to reducing the goal target.
Don’t Set Flexible Goals
Even in the face of what is stated above, I would advocate against setting a flexible goal per se. Flexible goals lack the immutability and weight of a rigid goal, attributes that not only allow you to fix the goal in time and place within your mind but also allow you to plan around it.
As part of the GREATER² Goal Achievement System (as well as the GROW goal-setting model), the path to a goal should be divided into “step goals” that allow the goal setter to progress smoothly from their starting point to their goal. Using the concept of weighting, they can make the initial step goals easier but must then make the final steps correspondingly more difficult.
Changing the goal would have the effect of fundamentally upending the goal path and undermining the routines and habits established to reach the original goal at the prescribed time. Changing the goal in the middle of the campaign in order to still reach it may result in the unraveling of those hard-won routines and habits as well as an undermining of the motivation that flows from the certainty implicit in an appreciation of the goal’s situation.
If you are concerned about eventualities that may derail your goal campaign, I would suggest setting a secondary goal alongside your primary one instead of making your goal a flexible one.
A Secondary Goal as Back-Up
A secondary goal should be a less ambitious goal, but one that is still worthwhile achieving. However, when setting your secondary goal, be sure to relax only one dimension of the primary goal. In other words, reduce the target value (for example, if your primary goal is to increase sales by $75,000, your secondary goal could be to increase sales by $65,000) or extend the deadline (if your primary goal deadline is six months from the start of the goal path, the secondary goal could be seven months). Try not to do both.
Also, make sure that the secondary goal is still ambitious enough to be worthwhile pursuing. Be careful not to make the secondary goal insignificant due to its low bar.
Establish a goal path to the secondary goal alongside the primary goal path – with as much overlap as possible – so that if a situation develops where the achievement of the primary goal becomes impossible, it is doable to switch to the secondary goal path without much upheaval. The development of the secondary goal and goal path must mirror that of the primary goal. Do not take short-cuts on the secondary goal.
While you could make a case for setting flexible goals in certain extreme situations, I would suggest rather setting a secondary goal that can be engaged should the primary goal be made objectively impossible. What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment below.