The power of goals – An insight from a failure

The was first published in The Huffington Post 14th May 2014.

A recent attempt at breaking a 50 year old cycling record led to some useful insights on goal setting applicable to individual, team and business goals.

“Will everyone shut the f**k up and do exactly what I say” shouted the medic on the team. What followed was instant silence. My tandem cycling partner lay on the ground, an oxygen mask over his face and two of the support team holding drips up. Another member of the team called for an ambulance. In the space of a few seconds, our assault on a 50 year old cycling record was over. Years of training, planning, hoping, aching for success had come to nothing.

Once we knew my riding partner was safe, the post event analysis began. As with all failure, the lessons are infinitely richer than success. I decided to focus my analysis in the first instance on goal setting. Our goals had been remarkably simple. What could I learn about the way we had set goals and were there any lessons useful in the day job of helping individuals and teams improve their performance for the benefit of themselves and the organisations for whom they work.

1) Break the Lands End to John O’Groats Tandem cycle record set in 1966 at 50 hours, 14 minutes and 25 seconds. This means riding the 1350km / 832 miles pretty much non-stop.

2) Do it safely without either rider or anyone in the support team getting injured.

We failed on both counts. This was my second attempt. The first time round we made it all the way safely but were not fast enough.

The bigger the goal

In an extensive literature review, the two key researchers into goals and goal setting, Locke and Latham, have reached the inescapable conclusion that ‘bigger is better’. Hard, as in difficult goals lead to higher levels of performance than do easy or woolly goals. Whilst achieving the goal is always the aim, even 80% of a very challenging goal can be significantly more rewarding than an easy goal easily achieved.

Herein lies a conundrum I have discussed elsewhere. The performance management system in most organisations seems designed to force mediocre goals on people. If the consequence of failure is a negative or poor rating with the subsequent impact on pay and remuneration – why bother accepting challenging goals? Really tough goals as I found out are risky. There is a chance you will fail and the harder the goal the more likely that is to happen and yet challenging goals driver higher levels of performance.

I chose to try and break a cycling record – during the hours and hours of training over the years I never had a performance management review. Similarly, my colleagues and I have never done a performance management review with each other. In both my personal and business lives what we have done is set some challenging goals. These have motivated our performance.

The lesson
Set audacious goals. It promotes great effort and higher levels of performance.

Setting a goal alters the way you think

Locke and Latham refer to ‘subconscious priming’ In essence, because the goal has been set you notice those things more likely to help you achieve your goal as well as helping you take the right decision.

What I’ve noticed is that when my goal is really clear I tend to make decisions that help achieve the goal often without really thinking about it. For example, an ultra distance sports goal will influence the food I choose to put in my mouth. Similarly, at the end of a workshop rather than head to my hotel room – which is where I would rather be – I’ll stay and chat to delegates. An old colleague once said to me “sales is about turning up – if you’re not there they can’t buy”. Lots and lots of decisions similar to these seem to have an accumulative effect.

A clear, unambiguous goal predisposes your mind towards activities likely to assist in its achievement.

Critical factors in goal setting


Ken Blanchard wrote ‘Feedback is the food of champions’ this prima facie is a truism. And yet it is one of the main reasons why our record attempt failed. Not being blessed with the outstanding sporting genes, I knew I would need to apply every bit of science I could find to raise my performance to the required level. The scientific method of cycle training is a wealth of numbers. Whereas in the past every training ride had a purpose, now, every minute of every ride had a prescribed level of effort designed to impact on different systems in the body. After every ride I would examine the numbers and every week so would my coach and the plan the following week would be set based on what the data showed. Whilst hard, it was wonderful. I could see the incremental progression in improvement. Feedback rocks!

The old school method of training in which the rider simply gets out and rides their bike – lots – has been very effective in the past for my riding partner but it makes the assumption that at some point you will ‘know’ that you are ready. This will be based on gut experience and on comparison of performance against others. This is far more subjective. The difficulty is it’s impossible to determine for certain that his demise in our record attempt was due to insufficient training – in the absence of data it simply is not possible to say.

The impact of a lack of feedback was the result became very binary – either we have or have not broken the record as opposed to ‘we are on track and it is probable we could break the record’.

Feedback really matters. The clearer the goal, the more precise the feedback can be.


Linked to feedback is the importance of mini goals. These are milestones on the way to achieve a bigger goal. Success breeds success. Lots of positive experiences of achieving the smaller goals will help maintain motivation to achieve the bigger goal. The evidence is that when you achieve a difficult goal you are more likely to choose a harder goal next time, in the same way, achieving a small goal motivates you onto the next small goal.

It’s like training for a marathon. The marathon is the big goal. The small goals along the way are the individual training sessions that are completed, on time and to schedule.

In the same way in business, once the main goal has been set, smaller goals / milestones help maintain a sense of progress towards the objective and the feedback on this provides the motivation to continue.

In our failed record attempt we had an amazing goal. I had some very clear training objectives, but we lacked some key mini performance goals that would have allowed us to spot, possibly, some of the difficulties earlier rather than waiting until the catastrophic failure of one rider during the attempt.

Please note I am not advocating an extensive performance management system. It’s the goals that drive performance, not a performance management system.

Work out some mini goals and milestones to help maintain motivation and to get a sense of progress.

Make it public

Telling people your goal seems to make it more likely to be achieved. There’s something about fulfilling what you said you would do that helps drive performance. We did this for our record attempt – there was significant interest around what we were doing. So many people following what we were doing kept me training hard. Making it public seems to rely on the ‘fear of failure and even humiliation’ to drive one onwards.

As a failure, I can tell you that not achieving the goal really sucks. However, the reactions I have had from almost all has been encouragement to ‘pick myself up, dust myself down and start all over again’ and a sense of respect for having attempted to take on such a tough goal. Publicity seems to have a double benefit. It helps drive the performance and when things don’t go according to plan it provides a ground swell of support to get you going again. There will always be those who knew ‘you couldn’t do it’, but they were never going to help you succeed anyway so their views are largely irrelevant – except where constructively critical.

In the same way in business sharing your goal with others can feel like it’s going to set you up to fail, but there is much to learn from failure and you may well succeed.

Share your goal publicly it will help drive your performance and keep you going when things aren’t going your way.

Don’t do your best

How many times have you sent your child to school, or asked a colleague to just “do your best”? The evidence is that a clear, hard goal is much more effective at driving performance that simply asking people to “do their best”. Your best is too vague to be useful. You can rationalise any performance as “your best”. For example, it was “your best” performance given you had a cold, the weather was awful and you hadn’t had much sleep. However if the goal was hitting a specified number, be that sales, power output, widgets or whatever, it is very clear what your best is. It’s a number that previously you have never managed to hit.

The revelation for me is not to create the excuse of doing my best, instead to define numerically what ‘best’ is, such that it can become a goal.

Contrary to what you might think, asking people to do their best is not ‘the best’ way of driving performance. Setting clear goals is.

It’s a team thing

What’s interesting from a business perspective in the research is that the goal does not necessarily have to be set by the individuals involved (although that helps). A goal can be set for people provided it’s done in the right way. The key thing is providing a clear rationale for the goal. Simply saying “do this” won’t cut it. In fact, you’re more likely to drive people away from performance.

Trying to break a record involves asking a support team. The brief is not terribly appealing: “Travel from one end of the country to the other in a slow moving car, where you are required to get out every 30 to 40 minutes whatever the time of day to provide food and drink and assistance to two smelly, tired and focused cyclists. Don’t get paid for it and by the way, the chances are they won’t succeed – records are not broken easily.”

Despite this, 12 people did give up their time. They bought into the vision of being part of a record-breaking team. Not only did they do this once, they came back again to support us in our second attempt. As you can imagine – simply telling them to ‘do it’ would not have worked.

The problem with goals

In a very insightful call for more research, Ordóñez, Schweitzer, Galinsky and Bazerman flag some concerns around the negative impact of setting really tough goals. GM’s drive for an extra 0.8% of market share of the car and light truck market with seeming little regard for the impact on the business was seen as a significant contributory factor in their subsequent demise in the last recession. Everyone bought into the goal and went hell for leather after the target. But the strategies deployed to achieve the goal had disastrous consequences. The authors noted a similar effect in action at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac prior to their demise.

My own experience is that a really tough goal will result in you focussing almost exclusively on that goal. The price of this focus is a lack of attention on other important elements. Goal setting has to sit within a context. It needs qualifying statements to ensure the focus remains balanced.

In business this may mean achieving a specific target but without incurring expenditure beyond a specific level, or ‘by using existing resources’. These qualifying statements are not necessarily a negative thing. Innovation loves a constraint. The qualifying statements often force very different ways of thinking which benefit not only achieving the goal but other aspects of business.

Goals can have negative consequences. In order to mitigate against risk it is useful to qualify what achieving the goal means.

Inspiration through reaching for the stars

There are many other fascinating and interesting insights into goal setting. I’ve touched on what seemed to me to be the most significant elements. As the dust settles in the 10 days since we failed in our attempt to break the Lands End to John O’Groats Tandem bike record, I keep coming back to a quote I found in my inbox sent to me by my physio. Striving for what are frankly quite ridiculous goals, but just about possible remains an incredibly fulfilling experience. I’ve failed twice at the Tandem record…..third time lucky?

‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.’

—Theodore Roosevelt

Dominic Irvine 2014 All rights asserted.
Photo credit: Joolze Dymond