Blog Post

What Should You Do When You Don't Accomplish Your Goals?

Sharlyn Lauby

We spend a lot of time talking about goals. We debate how to set goals, manage goals, and celebrate the success of achieving our goals. Today, I want to talk about an aspect of goal setting that doesn't get as much discussion: What should you do when you don't reach your goals?

Let's face it, sometimes we don't achieve our goals. If there's a silver lining to not accomplishing your goals, it's that today's society has embraced the failure concept. What I mean by that is we are much more receptive to having business conversations about failure. For example, basketball star Michael Jordan has a very famous quote about failure:

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And this is why I succeed."

Michael Jordan isn't the only one. Ted Turner, Oprah Winfrey, Jack Welch, and Sara Blakely have all talked about the benefits of failure. Now, I don't want to say that not achieving a goal is always acceptable and embraced. But on some level, it's okay, as long as you learn from it. When you don't have success with your goals, it's your responsibility to figure out why.

Finding out the reason

The reasons goals aren't accomplished can be broken down into two categories: factors you can control and factors you can't control. Both factors have some similarities. For example, let's say I've set a goal to complete a leadership development course. It's on my performance appraisal as one of the professional development items I need to accomplish. The course takes 12-weeks and is offered every quarter by the human resources department.

One of the reasons that I might not accomplish this goal is time. I decide that Q3 or Q4 would be a perfect time to take the program. So, I've taken Q1 and Q2 out as an option - factors I can control. In Q3, I find out the course is completely booked - a factor I cannot control. So, I sign up for Q4. Then my manager gives me a high-profile project to work on and suggests that I postpone participating in the course - another factor outside of my control.

What's important to note is that both the company and I had a role in the goal not being accomplished. It would be unfair of the company to penalize the employee for not achieving their goals, since the manager suggested the employee not take the Q4 program. And it would be unfair of the employee to blame the company because the employee decided to wait until Q3 to sign up.

Do you abandon the goal?

Once you've figured out the reason(s) that the goal wasn't accomplished, now the tough questions begin. You have to decide if this is still a goal, so there are some questions you need to ask:

Do I still need to and/or want to accomplish this goal?

Does the goal need to be redefined in some way?

Do I have all the resources I need to accomplish this goal?

What would happen if I do not accomplish this goal a second time?

It's possible after you answer these questions, the answer will be, "No, that goal doesn't matter anymore." And that's perfectly acceptable. People and companies change all the time. The important part is that the situation was analyzed, everyone gave honest feedback, and reached a satisfactory conclusion.

Abandoning a goal takes a lot of guts. If the goal won't be pursued again, then everyone who was invested in that goal needs to understand why. They also need to be allowed to let it go. One of the biggest challenges with failed goals is that they linger around and stifle future productivity.

On the other hand, if the goal is still important and needs to be accomplished, then all of the stakeholders need to recommit. They need to acknowledge the reasons the goal didn't happen the first time, take ownership for those circumstances, and take ownership for the new goal.

Not accomplishing goals isn't a moment for passing blame. It's a time for reflection and regrouping. It's how people use that time that will ultimately decide success.

Your Turn: What's the most valuable lesson you learned from failing at something?

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