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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

The art of the goal pivot: when and how to change directions when things aren't working

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Gary Latham

Despite our best intentions, everyone has had to give up on a goal at some point.

Perhaps they set the bar impossibly high; maybe they didn’t have the resources to get the job done; perhaps the circumstances surrounding the goal changed; maybe they lost interest. Whatever the reason, knowing when to pivot on a goal in the face of new challenges or unforeseen circumstance is an important skill in both professional and personal contexts.

“You have to continually ask yourself, ‘Are these the right goals? Are these goals you want to continue to pursue?’” says Gary Latham, professor of organizational management at Rotman. “It’s about constantly scanning the environment to determine whether what was true before is still true now.”

Latham says that often the most successful organizations, and individuals, have a strong understanding of when to stay the course and when to pivot away to something new. They also tend to have strong contingency plans.

“Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were famous for pivoting,” Latham says. “The bigger companies that continue to last from one century into the next are also great at scenario planning.”

To master the art of pivoting, Latham says you need to regularly assess your circumstances, watch out for changes to expected outcomes, set smaller sub-goals, and look to others to understand whether you’re on the right course.

Reassess your situation 

Nobody is immune to changing circumstances, but individuals do have the power to adjust their expectations based on those changes. To maintain motivation and commitment in the face of volatility, however, Latham says it’s important not to pivot too often, or you may begin to lose faith in your ability to follow through. “You don’t do it whimsically,” he says. “There has to be strong evidence.”

Latham explains that before pivoting, it’s important to consider the root problem preventing you from achieving your goal, otherwise you risk running into the same roadblocks later. 

“You have to ask yourself why you aren’t meeting those goals,” he says. “Are you getting adequate feedback from higher ups? Feedback is necessary because it tells you whether your plan is a good one or a poor one for goal attainment. You have to ask yourself; do you have the necessary resources? Has adequate time been allotted to goal pursuits? Are the goals still within your ability?’”

This assessment should provide adequate evidence to consider how to adjust your new goals in a way that overcomes the challenges that prevented you from achieving the old ones.

Watch out for changes to outcome expectancy

When we set goals for ourselves, there is often an expected outcome: studying more will lead to better grades, hard work will lead to a promotion, eating healthier will result in weight loss, etc. Often the best evidence that it’s time to change our goals, and our behaviours, is when outcome expectancy changes, Latham says.

If you are passed over for promotions despite the extra effort, if you are gaining weight despite eating healthier food, if your grades are still suffering despite dedicating more time to studying, it’s probably time to consider a different approach.

“Ask yourself the question: do you see the relationship between what you are doing and the outcome that you can expect?” he says, adding that if not, it might be time to adjust the goal itself.  

Set sub-goals

One of the best ways to follow through on more complex and long-term goals is to set sub-goals, or what Latham refers to as “proximal performance goals.” According to Latham’s research, setting proximal goals that operate in service of larger ones can make it easier to pivot and adjust in the face of new challenges or changing circumstances.

In a 2003 research paper titled “Goal Setting: A Five-Step Approach to Behavior Change,” published in Organizational Dynamics, Latham challenged a group of high school students to a business game that offered fluctuating dollar amounts in exchange for toys. Through that experiment, he concluded that those who set sub-goals were more motivated and more successful in the face of changing circumstances.  

The study also revealed that breaking down long-term goals into smaller sub-goals can act as an early warning system that notifies us when our initial approach is no longer able to produce the desired longer-term outcome. “In dynamic situations, it is important to actively search for feedback and react quickly to it to attain the goal,” Latham wrote. “Proximal feedback regarding errors can yield information for people about whether their picture of reality is aligned with what is required to attain their goal.”

Look for models

Often the best way to determine if you’re on the right path, is to look to others on the same course. “You can find a model with whom you identify; the model can be another organization, or it can be another individual,” he says.

In his research, Latham notes that self-efficacy — the belief that you can attain your goals — is key to successfully pursuing them. Once you lose that, it becomes hard for individuals to follow through. Key to enhancing self-efficacy, says Latham, is finding role models who have accomplished the same pursuit previously.

“The employee on your team who received a good performance appraisal while your appraisal was disappointing: look at what that individual with whom you identify did so you can emulate it,” he says. “If on the other hand you decide you don’t want to do that, it may be fine for you to look for another job.”

Gary Latham is a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the Rotman School of Management.