(First published, June 2001)
Specifying performance goals is an essential element of effective management. For example, the success of annual performance reviews depends on the statement of goals for the employee. Several elaborate and time-consuming simulation games incorporate goal-setting activities. In contrast, this lighthearted version uses everyday materials to focus on important aspects of specifying performance goals.
This simulation game consists of six rounds of activity, each involving a different participant. A mini debriefing discussion is undertaken immediately after each round to identify the emotional impact of the type of goal statement used during the round and to relate the experience with workplace events. The final activity requires participants to apply their insights to the specification of work-related performance goals.
To specify work-related performance goals at the right level of challenge, using the right choice of language.
Any number more than 3 (See the section on Adjustments for modifying the game to suit audience size.)
20 - 40 minutes (including debriefing time)
A wastebasket or some other convenient container.
Pieces of paper
Round 1. No Goals
Before starting this round, make sure that there is a wastebasket somewhere in the vicinity. However, do not call attention to it.
Crumple up a piece of paper. Give it to one of the participants. (Let's call this person Helper 1.) Glance at your watch.
Avoid eye contact with Helper 1. Talk to the group about the activity you are going to conduct. Explain that it is called TRASH and that the acronym stands for "Targeted Response Assessment for Supporting Humans". The activity basically deals with setting goals for people who work with you or work for you. Briefly explain the importance of setting mutual goals in any performance-management venture.
Stop in the middle of your explanation (preferably in the middle of a sentence) and look at your watch. Turn to Helper 1 and deliver the following message in your own words:
Your time's up. You were supposed to throw that piece of paper into the wastebasket and you failed to do it. It should have been obvious to you. Do I have to tell you what to do all the time? Can't you figure out things for yourself? Do I have to spell out obvious things?
Conduct a mini debriefing by asking Helper 1 how she feels. Ask other participants how they would feel in a similar situation. Elicit feelings of irritation, defensiveness, and being insulted.
Explain that you were demonstrating the no-goal situation. Ask participants for workplace examples of this situation and its impact on productivity.
Round 2. Trivial Goal
Retrieve the crumpled piece of paper and select the next participant (Helper 2). Place the wastebasket close to her and deliver the following message in your own words:
Here's a piece of paper. Here's a wastebasket. Drop the trash in the can. You will receive more paper trash from the others. Throw it all in the wastebasket. Your performance will be evaluated in terms of the number of pieces of trash thrown into the wastebasket.
Ask other participants to crumple up more sheets of trash paper. Give the first piece of paper to Helper 2 and observe her action. Call time at the end of 30 seconds, count the number of pieces of paper in the wastebasket and congratulate Helper 2.
As before ask Helper 2 how she feels. Ask other participants how they would feel in a similar situation. Elicit feelings of boredom, under-utilization of talents, and being patronized.
Explain that you were demonstrating the trivial-goal situation. Ask participants for workplace examples of this situation and its impact on productivity.
Round 3. Impossible Goal
Empty the wastebasket, pick up one of the pieces of paper and select the next participant to be Helper 3. Deliver the following message in your own words:
Stand 10 feet away from the wastebasket. Use your left hand (or your right hand if you are left-handed) to toss the piece of paper into the wastebasket. Keep your eyes closed during this procedure. We will supply you with additional pieces of trash paper. Keep throwing them with your eyes closed. Also, be aware that I will be moving the wastebasket around. Don't open your eyes to peek at its location. Your performance will be evaluated in terms of the number of pieces of trash correctly placed in the wastebasket during the next 30 seconds.
Conduct the activity as described in your message. Call time after 30 seconds and ask Helper 3 to open her eyes.
Elicit reactions from Helper 3 and from other participants. You will probably hear about frustration, incompetence, lack of feedback, and being set up to fail.
Explain that you were demonstrating the impossible-goal situation. Ask participants for workplace examples of this type of situation (usually under the guise of stretch goals) and its impact on productivity.
Round 4. Incomprehensible Goal
Empty the wastebasket. Give a piece of trash paper to a new participant, Helper 4. Deliver this message in your own words (but preserving the technical jargon).
You performance requirement is to place these recyclable cellulose spheroids of deformed fractal planes inside a hollow truncated container. Launch the spheroid projectile in a parabolic arc whose focus is precisely 125 centimeters above the top surface of your cranium. Take into consideration wind velocity, inertial mass of the projectile, and acceleration due to gravity at 981 centimeters per second squared. Your level-four performance assessment will involve the rate at which the projectiles achieve zero velocity inside the truncated container.
Even before Helper 4 begins the task, ask her how she feels. Ask other participants for their comments. Elicit the feelings of confusion and being swamped by bureaucratic jargon.
Explain that you were demonstrating the incomprehensible-goal situation. Ask participants for workplace examples of this situation and its impact on productivity.
Round 5. Flaky Goals
Select Helper 5 and present the following message in your own words, taking care to maintain a poker face.
Take a deep breath and visualize yourself experiencing a peak state of self-actualization. Center yourself and become one with this beautiful piece of cosmic resource. Trust your intuition to connect the resource and the container. Visualize a perfect karmic union of the piece of paper with its ultimate destiny.
Before Helper 5 begins the task, ask her how she feels. Ask other participants how they would feel in a similar situation, especially if they did not have any prior knowledge of what was to be done. Elicit the feelings of confusion and embarrassment.
Explain that you were demonstrating the flaky-goal situation, which produces an impact similar to previous incomprehensible goal situation. Ask participants for workplace examples of this situation (usually under the guise of empowering employees) and its impact on productivity.
Round 6. Verbose Goal
Select Helper 6 and present the following message in your own words, enunciating properly and speaking in a monotone.
You will be given a variety of office trash, including, but not limited to, crumpled sheets of paper of various colors and weights. You will also have access to one of seven different-standard issue wastebaskets usually placed on the floor. Using OSHA-approved lifting procedures and alternating between your preferred hand and the other hand to prevent repetitive stress disabilities, you should be able to dispose off the trash at a rate that exceeds five pieces every 30 seconds. During your performance you may not refer to any notes, job aids, or consultative assistance from peers or supervisors.
Before Helper 6 can begin, exclaim that you have run out of time. Ask this Helper and others for reactions. Elicit feelings of boredom, confusion, and paranoia.
Explain that you were demonstrating the verbose-goal situation. Ask participants for workplace examples of this situation (under the guise of precision) and its impact on productivity.
Point out that the examples of dysfunctional goals in the earlier simulations were compressed and contrived. However, they incorporate some key principles. Suggest that participants should do the exact opposite of everything that you demonstrated and set specific, nontrivial, non-frustrating, brief goals stated in plain language.
Ask participants to pair up and write a goal statement related to trash-throwing activity. Announce a 3-minute time limit.
Read a few selected goal statements and ask participants to comment whether they are trivial, impossible, incomprehensible, flaky or verbose.
Now ask each participant to work individually and take a job-related performance and state a goal statement. Announce a 5-minute time limit.
After 5 minutes, ask for volunteers to read their goal statements. Ask others to comment on each statement using the same framework as before.
The ideal group size for this activity is six, one participant taking the prime role during each round. I have conducted this simulation exercise with small and large groups. Here are some suggestions on how to modify the activity to suit groups of different sizes:
With fewer than six participants, just rotate the Helper's role so some participants play this role more than once.
With 10 to 20 participants, set up the wastebasket at the front of the room. Randomly select Helpers from different parts of the room and ask them to come to the front of the room. Make sure that other members of the audience can observe the participant's actions.
With hundreds of participants, seat groups of 7-10 around round tables and place the wastebasket conveniently near. Give the instructions for each round from the front of the room. During the mini debriefing sessions, ask participants at each table to talk among themselves. Move around a few tables to report interesting excerpts from the conversations.