n this this two-part post, we’ll highlight three of the most common goal-setting methodologies present in organizations today and will discuss the pros and cons of each.
Management by Objectives (MBO)
If you’ve worked in an American organization in the last several decades, you probably have experience with the MBO approach to goal setting.
While the American corporation was in its formative stages, journalist Peter Drucker was invited to take a close peek inside General Motors. Drucker recognized that corporate environments tend to operate in silos in which employees get stuck in an “activity trap” – they’re so focused on what they’re doing that they forget why they’re doing it. These silos can’t be effective unless hierarchies are integrated from the top down. Leaders and their employees must decide on and commit to a common challenge that then cascades through the organization.
In The Practice of Management, which was based on Drucker’s leadership observations at GE, he first described his Management by Objectives (MBO) theory. In MBO, employees participate in setting goals and are then evaluated on the fulfillment of those goals. Managers focus on what employees are achieving rather than exactly how they are achieving it.
In the MBO model, every level of management participates in an organizational goal setting process so that the plan can be implemented with maximum buy-in. Early on, managers agree on the system by which performance will be evaluated and rewarded. Next, managers identify goals in every area for which they are responsible and share these goals with their teams. Once teams understand their targets, each manager works with individual employees to transfer knowledge of the bigger picture and set goals that are aligned with organizational and team objectives. The manager then steps into the role of monitor, checking progress often and assessing if and how well goals have been achieved.
In their 2014 book 100+ Management Models: How to Understand and Apply the World’s Most Powerful Business Tools, Fons Trompenaars and Piet Hein Coebergh said that an important aspect of the MBO approach is that when employees are involved with goal setting, they are more likely to fulfill their responsibilities. In the MBO system, employees are more self-directed than boss-directed – a shift from the industrial age of work in which employees simply did what their managers told them without asking questions or providing input on the best course of action.
Although Drucker was undoubtedly a genius, he did not discover the panacea for all things ailing corporate management. The MBO approach has well-documented advantages and disadvantages. A chief advantage, of course, is its egalitarianism. Several research studies, including the recent Gallup State of the American Manager Report, have indicated that employees who have a say in their goals and the best way to achieve results are more engaged in their jobs. MBO also forces management layers to align on a common vision and actively communicate that vision from top to bottom. Promotion and compensation decisions can be made more objectively and micromanagement is less of a problem. And best of all, the model can be used in any organization regardless of type or size.
Over the years, though, drawbacks to the approach have emerged. MBO requires a systematic, rigorous process that not all organizations have the discipline to undertake. Secondly, the emphasis on process sometimes overshadows meaningful actions and outcomes. Goals may be overly idealistic, failing to take into real account hurdles (like financial resources) that teams or individuals may face. MBO may also lead to competition instead of collaboration as teams focus narrowly on their objectives and put them above the greater good of the organization. This can result in actions that achieve results by whatever means necessary, and quality and the integrity of reporting can be compromised.
For more on the history of goal setting, head over to Intuit's Fast Track blog.