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Future proofing your career (part 4 of 4): Setting and achieving goals in an uncertain world

Setting goals
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The ability to set and achieve goals is a cornerstone of personal wellbeing; for an organisation, it’s one of the driving forces of success. But how do we do that when the future seems so unpredictable? In a landscape of unprecedented technological advancements, global crises and seismic economic shifts, the reality is that every goal requires us to embrace uncertainty to varying degrees. Our five ways can help you do that successfully…

 

1. Start with what you know

While there may be much you can’t predict, there is a lot you do know about who you are now as an individual, a team or organisation. Take stock of all the facets of your current situation without making any assumptions based on previous goals or objectives. Start with a blank canvas and get clear about your priorities now, and how they may have changed over recent times.

At the end of 2020, a YouGov/RSA survey showed that 91% of the UK population had embraced the turmoil caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and didn’t want things to go back to normal. There are many new goals in the making…

However, if you can’t make a start, however small, your goals will never get off the ground. In difficult circumstances, your best course of action is to take the very next possible step, whatever that may be, based on your priorities in the near term.

Writing for Harvard Business Review, marketing strategist and author Dorie Clark and executive coach and consultant Patricia Carl advocate for ‘shorter-term, process-oriented goals’ at times when you’re not fully in control of the outcome, such as: ‘I will network with four new people this week’. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you forget about longer term goals. Set them, but be prepared to refine them when you know more about what the future holds.

This ability to be flexible is essential. We often have limited control over external influences, so being able to re-evaluate your situation and focus on the areas where you can have an impact will give you a sense of purpose and greater freedom. For example, you may want to develop new skills as a way of increasing your chances of promotion, but your organisation’s training budgets have been slashed. Finding a mentor or doing an online course in your own time may be viable alternatives — and so your goal setting can shift accordingly.

Keeping your career moving by taking matters into your own hands is the approach encouraged by Keri Ohlrich, CEO of HR consulting firm Abbracci Group and co-author of The Way of the HR Warrior. ‘You are the main person who controls your own development,’ she says. ‘I worked at really big companies. And [employees] would sit and say, “Well, what is the company going to do for me?” You’re going to wait a long time for the company to do something for you.’

 

2. Ask difficult questions

To define your path ahead, Gwen Moran, writer, editor and creator of the Bloom Anywhere website, suggests that turning goals into searching questions can be a powerful way to diversify the thinking that defines our course of action — and unlock some big breakthroughs.

She quotes Hal Gregersen, innovation expert, author and senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, who believes that a list of compelling questions results in the innovation that is pivotal to success.

‘The bottom line is that question-based goals deliver more than statement-based goals,’ he says. ‘We’re programmed to start solving.’

In his book Questions are the Answer, Gregersen proposes that asking better questions leads to better answers. And by using questions as your starting point, you create a springboard for challenging conventional notions of success that may no longer serve us in our more chaotic present-day situations. We can redefine what allows us to thrive as individuals, communities and businesses.

He suggests, as an individual or a team, doing a ‘Question Burst’, which involves picking one challenge or opportunity, setting a timer and spending about four minutes generating as many questions about it as possible. Do this while following two key rules: Don’t answer any of the questions and don’t explain why you’re asking them. Write them all down, verbatim. Then select a few of the questions to focus on — the ones that ‘hold the most potential for disrupting the status quo’.

 

3. Don’t take on too many goals at once

Conventional wisdom recommends avoiding overwhelm, particularly in uncertain times. Dorie Clark proposes the adoption of ‘wilful myopia’ to all goals but one at any given moment. This chosen goal, she says, should align with the overall strategic vision of your company, but also sit as part of a ‘goal timeline’. This determines the optimal sequence of your goals, which form the strategy for achieving your vision as part of a longer-term plan.

It’s likely that there will be one goal that makes everything else easier or more attainable. This ‘keystone goal’ as Clark calls it, is the one to focus on because it enables you to accomplish multiple ‘subsidiary goals’ at once.

‘In the corporate world — and our culture more broadly — there’s always a push to do more, and do it quickly,’ she says. ‘But by taking a step back to evaluate your goals and determine which is most important to focus on right now, you can make targeted, demonstrable progress that facilitates your long-term ambitions.’

Equally, having a single goal reduces the risk of clashes, which can pull our energies in conflicting directions. As a personal example, if you decide you want to put in extra hours to gain a promotion at work, a parallel goal about widening your social circles and spending more time with friends is likely to lead to the failure of one or both.

But according to Caroline Adams Miller, author and a specialist in goal setting and grit, pursuing more than one goal at a time for yourself is perfectly acceptable – if that works for you.

‘There’s no hard-and-fast three, five, seven. What really matters is the personality type that you’re dealing with,’ she says. ‘It’s somebody’s ability to focus or hyperfocus, as well as their perseverance and creativity that makes the biggest difference in terms of whether or not they’re going to be flooded.’

You might find that having one personal and one career goal suits your best, or opting for a short, medium and long-term focus with three goals instead.

 

4. Establish accountability

In challenging times, having support and ‘back up’ is particularly important. Both Ohlrich and Clark, in her book Reinventing You, recommend assembling your own personal ‘board of directors’. These trusted mentors, advisors and colleagues can give advice and feedback when you need it and keep you motivated. Aside from not having to ‘go it alone’, you have a team who you are accountable to and can also help you in your professional development.

Your manager may also be a useful resource if you have a good relationship. Together you can brainstorm ideas for your development and reinforce how you can add value and be indispensable with goals that fully align with the current vision of your organisation.

Steven Pfrenzinger, entrepreneur and a coach specialising in barriers to success, recommends finding an ‘accountability partner’ with whom you can meet regularly, in-person or online, to discuss your challenges and successes.

Share your questions in advance of the meeting and don’t just limit them to actions achieved or pending. From your state of mind, confidence levels and internal conflicts to how well you’re sleeping and your work-life balance, these conversations should dig deep and can bring out the best in both of you.

‘Accountability is a key ingredient for success with your career or business goals,’ says Pfrenzinger. ‘Without it, the odds are stacked against you. Responsibility for your actions, behaviours, decisions and performance as they relate to your plan of action is linked to an increase in commitment to success, team morale and higher performance.’

 

5. Stay open and track your progress

When the future is less than clear, lots of smaller goals sequentially achieved can be a powerful way to keep your motivation high and your upwards trajectory consistent. Pfrenzinger suggests that daily progress lays the path to positivity — which means paying close attention to your progress.

But rather than disappearing down the rabbit hole of their own vision, organisations must stay tuned in to the world around them — competitors’ activity, trends, fashions, and other more practical, logistical or economic shifts in the landscape. The aim is not to be surprised.

This also means goals need to be reviewed and re-evaluated frequently, both in relation to the individual or organisation and the bigger picture. Has the situation changed? Have you changed?

Now more than ever, New Year’s resolutions and once-a-year goal setting and appraisals won’t be enough to accommodate the way the world is turning, or how we’re evolving and adapting as a result.

 

View the rest of our future-proofing series:

Future-proofing your career (part 1 of 4): You, technology, and the four questions to ask yourself right now

Future-proofing your career (part 2 of 4): Soft skills — the human touch essential to tech?

Future-proofing your career (part 3 of 4): Managing change in difficult times