To encourage loyalty, customers who purchase wine at the online store Yesmywine receive a stamp in the form of a “Country Medal” each time they buy a bottle. Customers who collect 12 medals over the course of a year receive a reward, such as a free bottle of wine.
Sounds like most standard loyalty programs, right? It’s not — there’s a catch.
To qualify, customers must collect their 12 Country Medals in a specific sequence set out by the store. For example, in January they might be told they have to buy a French Chardonnay. In February, an Australian Red. In March, an Argentinian Malbec, and so on.
At first glance this loyalty program appears overly restrictive, and as a result seems less likely to attract customers. But thinking that could be a mistake. It seems that Yesmywine has recognized something counterintuitive about the Setting and pursuit of goals. Its insight doesn’t just apply to encouraging people to purchase more wine. It could also help managers when it comes to setting targets for their teams.
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It’s no surprise that most people report a strong preference for flexibility when it comes to choosing their goals. This is understandable when you consider that most of us aren’t actually very good at predicting our actions and behaviors. Adopting a somewhat elastic Approach to setting goals allows us some future wiggle room.
But this same logic doesn’t apply when it comes to pursuing goals once we have set them. In fact, once people have set a goal, they are much more likely to complete it when the steps to achievement are set out in a rigid, restrictive way.
Here’s an example from a set of studies conducted by Stanford marketing professor Szu-chi Huang and her colleagues. Patrons at a city yogurt shop were offered a reward card entitling them to a free yogurt after making six standard purchases. However, not all of the cards were the same. Half of the cards Required people to purchase six different flavors of yogurt in any order to claim the reward. The other half required customers to purchase six different flavors in an order set by the store. Specifically, customers were required to purchase banana, apple, strawberry, orange, mango, and then grape.
People who were offered the flexible scheme were significantly more likely (about two and half times more) to sign up for the program than those told they had to make the purchases in a fixed sequence. However, the opposite was the case when it came to completing the task. Those given the loyalty cards that required a very rigid sequence of purchases were much more likely (more than 75% more) to complete the goal.
While there’s no doubt that a flexible approach encouraged more people to adopt the goal, that same flexibility actually hindered the goal’s completion. But why?
The answer, it seems, has to do with the limits of people’s decision-making ability. According to a variety of sources, we are required to make as many as 35,000 decisions a day. So in the context of an already information-overloaded, decision-fatigued workforce, one thing people will likely appreciate is the need to make fewer, not more, decisions. And that’s exactly what a rigid approach to goal pursuit offers. By setting a predetermined sequence for the achievement of a goal, the number of unnecessary “decision points” that arise when people pursue a plan is reduced or perhaps eliminated completely. As a result, a goal both becomes more likely to be achieved and potentially feels easier in the process.
This insight sheds light on a dilemma often faced by leaders, managers, and anyone else who has the responsibility for setting and monitoring goals. Received wisdom is that a leader sets goals and then gives autonomy to teams to achieve them. This research suggests the exact opposite: Leaders should be flexible in their approach to setting a goal, but once a direction has been agreed on, they should be rigid with the steps to achieve it. Which is best?
The answer, as is very often the case when it comes to people’s behavior, is that context matters.
In situations where the goal that is being pursued is a relatively simple one, and the motivation to achieve that goal is quite strong, this research suggests that taking a flexible rather than fixed approach to the steps required to achieve the goal typically works best. However, in situations where the change required is quite hard, or if a leader believes that the motivation levels in her team might be low, creating a rigid sequence and structure should be more effective.
Imagine a manager tasked with persuading colleagues to adopt a new initiative — introducing a new set of customer service standards in their call center, for example. Before structuring the required actions, the manager should ask, “Is the challenge here one of getting buy-in or getting follow-through?” If the challenge lies in getting colleagues onboard, then the manager should ensure that the sequence of required actions and steps are as flexible as is practicable. The manager should also be sure to emphasize the flexibility when announcing the initiative to teams.
However, if the challenge faced is about getting follow-through, then a different approach will be required. Here, the manager should adopt a much more structured approach, one that sets out the steps to take in a clear, rigid, and specific way. When announcing the initiative, the manager should emphasize how this new program has been designed in a straightforward, uncomplicated fashion, therefore reducing the need for additional or unnecessary decisions.
Adopting this “rigid versus flexible” approach to setting goals could even help when it comes to your own achievements. It’s that time of year when many of us have set ourselves a goal, perhaps to get back in shape after the holidays. Maybe you are the sort of person who finds it hard to motivate yourself to take on such goals. If that’s the case, taking a flexible approach might be best for you. But if you struggle with follow-through — for instance, if you find yourself in situations where there are simply too many other priorities competing for your attention — then adopting a much more rigid approach, one that includes setting specific actions and steps, could be more effective.
Some surveys have suggested that as many as two-thirds of people give up on their New Year resolutions and goals before the month of January has ended, so adopting the right approach to setting and pursuing your goals could mean the difference between getting back in shape or consigning that treadmill to the back of the garage to gather dust.
The next time you set a goal for yourself, or your team, think about whether you’re looking for buy-in or follow-through, and set a path to success accordingly.