Realistic vs Unrealistic Goals in Business

Goals are essential to measure the return on investment for resources and activities, and to track the progress of a startup’s journey to world domination. But why is this such a tricky task?

When it comes to goal-setting, you’re faced with a somewhat daunting binary. On the one side of the coin, realistic goals stare back at with their earnest eyes, preaching about the dangers of unfettered fancies. “It’s safer to be an accountant than a rockstar”, as your parents might say.

On the other side are your flamboyantly unrealistic goals. They call like sirens from the other side of comfort, with the odds stacked against them. But they keep you focused on a positive trajectory, and they allow you to dream. Are unrealistic goals a bad thing? Do they do harm, or do they predict success?

The cultural impact of unrealistic goals

Whilst there is agreement on the value of setting goals, the statistics are less than favourable when it comes to achieving them. In this Workbook study, it was uncovered that companies fail to achieve their goals 70% of the time because people don’t feel committed and engaged in the achievement. The last thing you want to do is set goals that further contribute to this culture.

At a startup, morale and driving ambition are both key. However, if a team is continuously missing targets because those targets are set out of reach… it’s obvious that this is damaging.

The problem is highlighted smartly by Ted Harro in HuffPost.

He outlines three reasons why unrealistic goals foster an unhelpful culture of failure:

  1. Failure becomes excusable: If goal-setting is not precise, you open the door to excuses for not reaching them. There are obvious scapegoats for why the goals are not met.
  2. Failure becomes acceptable: If the failure to reach the goals that you have set becomes easily-condonable, your company can quickly slip into a culture of mediocrity. A glibness sets in and it comes to feel communally irrelevant whether or not you reach your targets.
  3. Failure becomes expected: After failure has become acceptable, the next obvious and damaging step is to expect it. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being part of an environment like this, you may recognize the feeling of a kind of perpetual failure deja vu. “Here we go again,” your team keeps saying to themselves.

When you add this up, combined with a consistent approach over time, goals start to mean nothing and motivation goes out of the window. Before you know it, there is a culture of failure. New recruits entering your business environment are quickly swallowed by the vortex.

Believe it or not, this is not enough reason to dispense with unrealistic goals completely. Here are the pros and cons unrealistic goals…

The pros of unrealistic goals

We’ve established that when a vast number of goals are not achieved, the feeling of consistent failure can be detrimental to workplace culture. Regardless, many experts speak to the value of incorporating unrealistic goals into planning.

What if I were to tell you that you aren’t meant to achieve all of your goals? What if the function of some goals are aspirational rather than planning-based?

One only has to look to the mad and beautiful non-linear pathway that is human history. People have been doing the impossible for centuries. We’re a species that is forever achieving the unachievable and only because we have a level of insanity to believe that… maybe we can.

If you set the right unrealistic goals, you can create a situation in which your team is striving for perfection. It may have the following results:

  • The team will be motivated to achieve the highest possible standards
  • The team will be encouraged to try creative solutions to impossible problems
  • The team will seek out ways to complete difficult tasks in a shorter time frame

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” was once said, and for good reason. The goal of all goals is not necessarily to achieve the goal.

The cons of unrealistic goals

The dangers of unrealistic goals can be summed up in one word – stress.

If you create an environment where the team constantly attempt to achieve the impossible, you foster an undue amount of pressure. People are stretched too thin, creating the potential for burnout. Stress has been normalised in our society, when in fact it is not a necessary ingredient for success. In fact, it can have the opposite effect.

Stress can quickly spiral into depressive behaviours. In fact, as this study outlined in Psychology Today suggests, depressive behaviours may even have an adaptive function that allows us to more easily let go of the pressures placed on us by unattainable goals.

The sense of achievement from setting a simple goal and achieving it can have a galvanising effect on a team and help you move forward with sustainable growth. Unrealistic goals may reverse this process, resulting in unmotivated people whose contributions never bear fruit.

In conclusion…

With these contradictions, it’s difficult to know what to adopt for goal-setting. Should you shoot for the moon and aim for perfection, or should you understand your limits and delineate goals based on this self-awareness?

There are ways to incorporate wild aspirations carefully. They can serve the purpose of increasing productivity, sparking creativity, and promoting high achievement. Ceilings can be smashed, new paradigms can be discovered and trail-blazers can be born.

But these unrealistic goals must be balanced out with small victories. Collective progress must be made towards an achievable result. This mixture is an intelligent method for setting goals. Individual tests must have a realistic metric for success, whereas broader ambitions may have more idealistic outlook.