The Work Experience

Hey Boss — Enough with the Big, Hairy Goals – Bob Sutton – Harvard Business Review

I love Bob Sutton. After reading his book Good Boss, Bad Boss I have become a bit of an acolyte. What I like about him most is the tenacious way he demystifies and deconstructs common management practices. Like goal setting.

For most organizations in most industries, success is measured on well known and accepted yardsticks. Sure, there are differences and they do matter, but ambitious goals rarely send people in directions they didn’t realize they needed to go.

In a post for HBR he questions the value of “big, hairy, audacious goals”. Not only do they state the obvious, he writes, but they provide no practical direction for how employees can achieve them.

A good boss lays out the path to a big goal, and works with people to break it down into objectives that more clearly imply the necessary actions. Focusing attention on the little steps not only clarifies what people need to accomplish on a daily basis, it also allows people to enjoy Small Wins …

… organizations tend to be stymied by big goals that have not been broken into bite-size pieces. Faced with seemingly huge and overwhelmingly difficult challenges, people freeze up or even freak out. So the best bosses not only outline the steps, they talk and act like each is not overly difficult — which quells people’s fears and enhances their confidence that, if they just keep moving, everything will turn out fine. 

Good leaders break down lofty goals into tangible activities so employees can grasp them. In the experience I have had consulting with staff the inability to grasp a big abstract goal can apply to anyone, regardless of their seniority. So break the goal down into:

  • objectives
  • actions
  • hard actions versus easy actions
  • immediate steps
  • and finally, what needs to be accomplished daily for people to enjoy small wins.

Read the original post by Bob Sutton which includes a compelling case study and further references at