Studies in Simplicity: Microgoals

Big and complicated problems often generate big, complex solutions. Ken Segall puts it very well in his book, Think Simple, when he writes, “It’s in our DNA to prefer simpler things, yet we so often open the door to complexity. That’s because being complicated is easy. Making things simpler is the more challenging task.”

If you want to do one thing today that will greatly increase your chance of success on any project, personal or business, do the hard work up front to make it simpler.

You may have a vision of a healthier work force with higher engagement and retention, fewer sick days, and lower medical costs. It is an admirable and potentially inspiring goal. To achieve it, you put in new programs designed to reward employees for healthy behaviors.

The full value of the program, the real return on that investment, is not just that employees start new and healthier habits, it is that they continue in those desired behaviors for months and years.

This is the source of one of the biggest problems in introducing change. Our rational minds are inspired by the big vision of “Kip looking good on the beach.” But our emotional selves are dealing with real world, real-time immediacies: “I’m hungry. That cookie smells good.”

We need tools to help us mediate between our better, future selves and the temptations that arise to lead us back towards old behaviors. Developing smaller goals on the path to greater things can help us succeed. Let’s call them microgoals, and here are some compelling reasons to make sure you have built them into your plans for change:

  • They keep things immediate: a three-year goal is ambitious and dramatic, but it can also be intimidating, especially when you experience a setback. Microgoals help people focus on the immediate and achievable actions. They also make for smaller stakes, which can take some of the fear out of potential short-term failures.
  • They create milestones for communication: I hear too many people say that you must tell employees something seven times before they hear it. It is so demonstrably wrong. The only time I am going to tell you something seven times is if I am trying to bore you. Each microgoal provides opportunities to deliver messages that evolve over time in compelling ways.
  • They create opportunities for champions: As you achieve microgoals, grassroots heroes emerge, people who achieve results beyond initial expectations. Celebrate those champions to reinforce desired behaviors and do so in a way that feels like winning. It re-energizes people, defuses skeptics, and inspires the next generation of champions.
  • They create momentum: In the realm of engaging large populations, few things feel as good as winning. Microgoals make it easier for you to declare victories. String those victories together and it will build confidence and positive feelings among employees, even during tough times.

A caveat: one microgoal at a time. The rule of simplicity is still in play. Mishandled, microgoals can become part of the information overload that overwhelms so many employees in the modern workplace.

Set the microgoal, accomplish it and pivot to the next. Make sure it is clear and that you are explicit about the behaviors to achieve it. Never skip the step of acknowledging success and recognizing champions.

If you are interested in learning more about change that sticks, register for the IABC Heritage Region Annual Conference in October and stop by my presentation with Megan Hogan on Behavior Change that Sticks.

 Change Communications Expert