Stretch Goals Challenged in Harvard Business Review Article

W. Edwards Deming was the first to say that a goal without a method is useless.  An article by Max Bazerman is titled, When Goal Setting Goes Bad.  He points to many of the same things that Dr. Deming discovered that arbitrary goals without method further develops unethical behavior is organizations.

I have seen this behavior in many service organizations.  Chief among them are break-fix companies where the owner or president offers rewards and incentives for achieving sales or other goals.  Then, turn a blind eye when workers hit the goal using unscrupulous methods that compromise customer trust.

Interestingly, these same owner/executives get the advantage of being “clean” as they are almost always oblivious to such unethical behavior (or pretend to be).  To me, by designing systems this way these folks are even more guilty than the perpetrators on the front-line.  It’s like having a bad building design and then blaming the contruction worker for structural design problems.

I found it interesting that Mr. Bazerman doesn’t have a problem with incentives, but talks about how goals drive out instrinsic motivation.  The two go hand-in-hand.  I call incentives a “faux target” (something I wrote about in The Great  False Dichotomy).

Organizations establish goals functionally, this is a design flaw to start with as it creates sub-optimization.  This is something that makes a systems thinker cringe.  Yet, command and control executives seem to think this is an optimal design.

I didn’t see much in the HBR article about what organizations should do.  A focus on method would be a good place to start.

Leave me a comment. . . share your opinion!  Click on comments below.

Make the new decade a profitable and rewarding one, start a new path here.  Download free from “Understanding Your Organization as a System” and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about how to get started at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at LinkedIn at

Tripp Babbitt is a columist (Quality Digest and IQPC), speaker, and consultant to private and public service industry.

Share This: