The romance of goal-setting captures our attention at least once a year (looking at you, New Years). We want to run marathons, we want to write books, we want to fall in love, we want to get in shape—we want to follow through on our commitments and reach the goals we’ve set for ourselves, but it’s all easier said than done.
Many of our goals are dramatic or transformative. Wanting to get from Point A to Point Z, and beating ourselves up for it when we can only muster E, or J, or—let’s face it—B. Amy Cuddy, an Associate Professor at Harvard Business School and author of Presence, has a theory on why commitments to goals fade. “They’re so big, they’re so distant, and they require a million little steps in between,” says Cuddy. “Each one of those steps is an opportunity to fail.” It’s because, she says, we’re too focused on outcome.
Cuddy’s research demonstrates that concerning ourselves with the manageable and measurable strides of incremental change increases the likelihood of achieving goals, and from an Arbinger perspective, also increases the likelihood of being truly helpful to others in the process.
Take Hope Arising, for example. Based in Dera, Ethiopia, the idea for this nonprofit organization originated from a desire to serve orphans in the region. It wasn’t until a needs assessment was conducted however, that the founders recognized that the most pressing issue in the area was actually access to clean water. They had a new outcome to shoot for, and it was big.
The team got to work, but the flow of the project hiccuped as they made their way through the Nonprofit Institute , an Arbinger training for nonprofits sponsored by the Forever Young Foundation. “We started working with building reservoirs and water points,” shares Chantal Carr, one of Hope Arising’s Co-Founders. “But when we were talking and working through our Arbinger strategic plan, and the questions were coming about output, they said, ‘But what are you going to measure for impact?’” The question got the team thinking in a way they hadn’t before.
They understood that when water was available, children were in school. When the water situation deteriorated, however, school attendance for both students and teachers plummeted because “everybody was out everywhere and standing in line for weeks to get water.” So they shifted their focus: “The measurable thing that we finally came up with was the number of kids in school,” says Carr. Though the greater goal remained access to clean water for the region, being able to measure incremental impact by the number of kids in school helped the organization and the community to realize that their work was truly making a difference.
On a macro or micro level, devoting less energy to a grand outcome and more energy toward incremental impact is key to true and sustained transformation.
Watch a video interview with Chantal Carr on Hope Arising’s strategic planning here.