Can goal setting go wrong?

Can goal setting go wrong?
Absolutely. 
 
Let’s say you’ve done your best to set a goal that’s unambiguous, measurable, time-bound. It’s phrased positively and there’s a clear measure or KPI to demonstrate if you’re on right track towards achieving your goal. What can possibly go wrong?
 

What we can learn from Artificial Intelligence (AI) about goal setting

In her book „You Look Like a Thing and I Love You“ Janelle Shane gives a comprehensive and accessible introduction into AI. How it works, what can do and what not and how researchers and developers try to teach it more and more things to do.
 
One example she gives illustrates perfectly how goal setting can go wrong despite the best intentions. It goes lie this: There’s a tunnel where people are walking through. At some point the tunnel branches and people can choose to go either left or right. 
 
We don’t want people using the left tunnel and task an AI, a robot of sorts, to figure out how to do that. The machines try many different things, always adapting and changing. 
 
The robot could point in the direction to the right, try block the way in the left tunnel and so on. After many iterations, the machine has found the most effective way to keep people from entering the left tunnel: Killing them all.
 
Now, the machine hasn’t been taught about ethics, so in its own right it did a brilliant job. How was the AI supposed to know that the end doesn’t justify all means? And before you’re quick to judge the robot, take an inventory of yourself and human fellows!
 

People cut corners to achieve a goal – and it becomes meaningless

So here are two examples how goal setting might inspire creative action to achieve this goal – but the effect might not be what you wanted to achieve in the first place.
 
First: Your company sells a physical product. You just launched it and naturally want people to know about it and try it. To drive this, you think of an incentive: „Let’s give them a ridiculous discount on the product if they sign up to our newsletter!“ Your goal is to get the maximum number of newsletter subscription as an indication for how many people tried your product. 
 
Sure enough, very soon you observe exponential growth. And just as you’re about to pop the champagne you notice that this goal you’re chasing isn’t helping your company to make meaningful progress. People created multiple email addresses for themselves just to get more product with your ridiculous discount. 
 
In a second example, maybe you want to show the workforce that your company invests in people development. So you set up a KPI that measures how many talents have been moved between departments. In principle, your intention is pure and with the best interest for everyone in mind.
 
But very soon you see also this game being rigged. Some managers use it as a chance to get rid of those employees that haven’t been helpful in a long time simply by „praising them away“. Other managers, who let some of their top people go, are left with scarce resource and expertise, not knowing how satisfy demands now. 
 
I’m sure you can name many more examples from your own area.
 
So, which goals are leading you down the wrong path?
 
Have a great week,
Nicole
 
PS: Got a question you’d like me to answer? Email me!
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