Advances in Project Management: Insights from Beyond Goals


By Susan David

Harvard University, USA

David Clutterbuck

Clutterbuck Partnership, UK

David Megginson

Sheffield Hallam University, UK


As practitioners and scholars of coaching and mentoring, we noticed that goal-setting is pervasive in developmental relationships.  Practices like SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound) go largely unquestioned.  We thought that, while goals have a place in coaching, we really should look at these issues more critically.  In particular, we saw more novice coaches using goal-setting models in rigid ways, as if they were depending on these processes to get them through a coaching engagement.  We questioned the usefulness of this because it seemed that strict adherence to goal-setting could make a coaching relationship somewhat mechanical and transactional, and people could get corralled into goals that weren’t really appropriate for them.

We were also very interested in an academic article called “Goals Gone Wild” that had been published in 2009 by a group of scholars, including Lisa Ordonez from the University of Arizona and Max Bazerman from Harvard Business School.  The article was not specifically about coaching but it was about goal-setting in organizations, so we found it highly relevant.  The basic premise was that goals were being overprescribed in management settings, and this could lead to bad outcomes, like unnecessary risk-taking and unethical behaviour.

Based on all of this, we thought it was time to pull together leading thinkers from coaching and mentoring, and get their take on goals. The result is Beyond Goals, a book that advances goal-setting theory.  For example, Sir John Whitmore is an originator of the GROW model, a goal-setting model that’s often used in coaching.  He contributes a chapter called “GROW grows up”, in which he describes the role of goals in his more recent work on transpersonal coaching.  Gordon Spence and Ed Deci apply self-determination theory to coaching, which hasn’t been done up until now, and they examine how this affects goal-setting.  Kathy Kram describes the evolution of her thinking in the field of mentoring.  Anthony Grant provides his latest theory and research on goals.  With such a wonderful group of scholars, the book turned out to be full of cutting-edge ideas. In this article we describe some of the insights we gained from our work on Beyond Goals.

The limits of goals 

We all know the word “goal” means an aim or desired destination, but if you trace its etymology, the word also means a boundary or limit.  When do goals help, and when do they interfere with desired outcomes? Researchers have demonstrated that if a task is well-defined and the person has the skill set to achieve it, a specific, challenging goal can be helpful.  Studies have been performed with logging crews and typists, and people doing other types of routine work.  But if the task requires learning or novelty, challenging goals can be problematic.  They rush people to action, rather than encouraging appropriate exploration.   Therefore, it’s important to identify when a goal might hinder learning or creativity.


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About the Authors

flag-usapmwj20-mar2014-david-AUTHOR1 DAVIDDr Susan David

Massachusetts, USA

Dr Susan A. David is a leading expert on leadership development, people strategy, employee engagement, and emotional intelligence. She is a founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital of Harvard Medical School and an Instructor in Psychology at Harvard University. As the co-chair of the Institute of Coaching’s Research Forum, she convenes an annual gathering of global leaders in coaching, with the objective of advancing the research and application of coaching. She was an invited member of the Harvard/World Economic Forum Breakthrough Ideas meeting, and is a frequent contributor to the best practice articles of the online Harvard Business Review. She is principal editor of the comprehensive and definitive Oxford Handbook of Happiness (2013). Dr David is the founding partner of Evidence Based Psychology, a leadership development and management consultancy created to provide strategic advice and help senior executives to foster positive and sustainable outcomes for themselves and their organizations. Her clients are leading organizations across the globe.

flag-ukpmwj20-mar2014-david-AUTHOR2 CLUTTERBUCKProf David Clutterbuck

Sheffield, UK

Professor David Clutterbuck is Visiting Professor in the Coaching and Mentoring faculties of both Oxford Brookes and Sheffield Hallam Universities in the UK and he is Special Ambassador for the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC). Professor Clutterbuck has been responsible for the implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of highly successful mentoring and coaching programmes in numerous organizations around the world, including Standard Chartered Bank, Goldman Sachs, Lloyds-TSB, World Bank and Nokia, and has worked with the Audit Commission in the UK. He has been listed as one of the top 25 most influential thinkers in the field of Human Resources by HR magazine, and was placed by The Independent on Sunday as second in the list of top business coaches in the UK. Clutterbuck has authored, co-authored, or edited 55 books to date. Prof Clutterbuck completed the first longitudinal, cross-sectional, intra-dyadic study of developmental mentoring, in which goal orientation was a principal element of analysis.

flag-ukpmwj20-mar2014-david-AUTHOR3 MEGGINSONProf David Megginson

Sheffield, UK

David Megginson is Emeritus Professor of Human Resource Development at Sheffield Hallam University, UK, where he founded the Coaching and Mentoring Research Group. He has been Chair of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC), which he founded with David Clutterbuck in 1992. David Megginson is a well-established author who was one of the first to query the role of goals in coaching and mentoring. He contributes to teaching the MSc in Coaching and Mentoring at Sheffield Business School, and supervises doctoral dissertations in coaching and mentoring. He founded the EMCC’s research conference which has provided opportunities for researchers from a range of countries, research traditions and levels of experience to come together in a collegial way to share their work, their learning and their dreams.

Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of books published by Gower in the UK.  The articles are coordinated by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Gower Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts.  Prof Dalcher also provides an introduction to the current month’s article, which you can see elsewhere in this month’s edition.”  

Information about the Gower series can be found at http://www.gowerpublishing.com/advancesinprojectmanagement.