Goal Setting – The Full Circle Model

August 21, 2015 Linda Aspey 2 Comments

Some coaches like to set goals with their clients at the very start of a coaching programme – personally I prefer to offer the client some quality thinking space, with minimal  interruption from me, so we can both see what emerges over time. Naturally this depends on what sort of coaching I’m doing; if it’s specifically related to career development or performance then “assigned” (written down, agreed and prioritised) goals have their place whereas for leadership coaching the goals tend to take shape as the client’s insight grows. And in team meetings getting some sense of desired outcomes at the start is, I believe, vital for effective use of time.  However, I treat goal setting with care.

Goals are rarely as simple as they sound when written into a nicely pleasing juicy acronym such as SMART. Because to achieve goals we need to consider a much wider number of factors including motivation, context, skill, personalities, other parties, and so forth.

Locke’s goal setting theory suggests that to achieve goals 5 factors have to be present. These are: Clarity, Challenge, Commitment, Feedback and Task complexity.  Many traditional goal setting models are good on getting Clarity, but I’m not sure about the rest.   We need deeper thinking.

As I couldn’t find a goal setting model that worked for me on the occasions when need one, I developed this; I call it the Full Circle because I hope it’s more holistic than usual and also it shows the cyclical nature of goal setting:

Below I’ve suggested some questions that will help you to elicit deeper thinking for individuals or teams.

If you’re doing this exercise for yourself, just replace the ‘you’ with ‘I’.


1. Create a compelling vision

What do you want, and why is this important?
What most motivates you about it? Does it align with your values?
What will success in this goal look or feel like to you and others?
What will have changed for the better?

2. See the bigger picture

What challenges might you face and how can you overcome or go round them?
What personal strengths and experiences do you already have that you can use?
Do you need you to sharpen your skills or knowledge or get more information before you start working on it and if so, how can you do that most efficiently?
Who or what else should you consider impact-wise before you commit to this?
What are the negative things you’re assuming that may stop you from achieving this goal?
What are the positive things you need to assume instead?

3. Consider all the options

What are all your options for achieving this goal?
What else?
What are the merits and downsides of each option?
What might you need to do to mitigate any negative impacts on others?
Which one seems the best option now?

4. Make decisions and share your plans

So what will you do?
What are your first and subsequent steps?
What resources do you need?
What are your timelines?
Who will you tell about this and get regular feedback from?

5. Review results and appreciate the journey

How did you do?
What have you learned?
How have you changed and grown as a result?
What will you do the same or differently in the future?
Who or what would you like to appreciate or thank that’s helped in your journey?
What’s the 1 key thing that’s left you feeling most proud of yourself?

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The Rationale: Slowing Down Creates Better Thinking

In “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman describes two ways that we think. These are “System 1” and “System 2″ Thinking. In a nutshell, System 1 deals with intuition, knee-jerk reactions, rapid assessment of shape, size and identity (for an immediate familiarity / safety / trustworthiness assessment) while System 2 deals with reasoning, cognition, and problem solving. Additionally, System 2 divides its operations into two minds: “slow thinking and demanding computation” and “rationality” (not intelligence).

However, he says, the reflective mind is lazy. So whenever we get a chance to use our System 1, we do so because it’s effortless.  This is called Cognitive Ease – when something feels good, true, familiar, and effortless.  It doesn’t really require thinking, it’s just intuitive.  Kahneman calls System 1 the Mental Shotgun – it shoots pellets that scatter and in fact it’s impossible to aim at a single point with a shotgun because of the scattering.

I think that some goal setting models can trigger this Mental Shotgun. We ask quick questions, get quick answers, and everyone feels satisfied.  But does this really give the best outcomes? In my view, rarely.  It’s a bit like agreeing to something when you’re under pressure. For example, at the end of meetings when you’re almost out of time because it’s been meandering and someone asks you “So what are your takeways / actions?” and you trot out an answer to relieve the tension. Until the next one when you realise (and either confess or fudge it) that you didn’t actually do anything about it!

So – when you next set some some goals – why not try setting Full Circle goals? Use it to think about all the complexities, about your real motivation,  and importantly, who or what might be impacted by anything you do in pursuance of this goal. In fact there’s only one thing worse than un-achieved goals – and that’s selfish goals.

A few words of warning. This is a list of questions that can encourage System 2 thinking. If you’re a coach or manager and you fire them off in rapid succession you’ll dampen thinking down. In fact you may revert them to System 1 thinking. So you could share these questions before you meet, enabling people to think about them independently.  Ensure you ask these questions without rushing, allowing plenty of time for them to really consider their responses. Don’t be tempted to interrupt with another question. Or make helpful suggestions; people need stillness to have movement in their thinking. Allow them real time and real space to think. You could even try waiting for them them to ask you when they are ready for another question that will help their thinking. That’s advanced System 2 Thinking! Then their goals and their outcomes will be brilliant.

* * * *

I’d really welcome your comments on here about this post / model / these ideas. Let me know if you try it out, or how you adapt it to suit you or your work. And if you like this post, please feel free to share it.

© Linda Aspey 2015

Locke’s Goal Setting Theory (1990)



Thinking Fast, and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – see an interview with him on YouTube here:


Image licence Creative Commons courtesy of Banion 1964


If you would like to find out more about working on your potential just get in touch with me.


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  • liane hambly

    Hi Linda. Thanks for sharing your cycle. I’m also a fan of Locke’s critique of SMART/ his argument that there should be more inspiration and stretch when setting goals an in career coaching, I find there is too much emphasis on tight goal setting at the outset which can prove very limiting. I guess you might be coming from an emergent change perspective (Kotter et al) with its emphasis on creating a vision at the outset to guide the journey but allow for flexibility. Re system 1 and 2 thinking – there is a lot of research about the effectiveness of intuition in decision making that emphasises that it shouldn’t be regarded as secondary. Intuition is a mental process whereby the brain rapidly sifts through more information than the neo-cortex (where logic and rational decision making takes place) can cope with. With simple, bounded decisions, the rational brain works well, but we can over think/ cause paralysis, especially where there is complexity. The role of reason is often therefore to prepare the ground for intuitive thinking (via exploration) and to make sense of, double check and justify decisions made elsewhere in the mind. If you haven’t come across it already, you might like Brown and Brown, Neuropsychology for coaches. This book explores developments in neuroscience and the implications for decision making/coaching. It would be interesting to consider how you could build whole brain thinking into your cycle. Kind regards, Liane

    • Linda Aspey

      Hi Liane and thanks for your comments. I agree there is a place in goal setting for intuition and that overthinking can cause paralysis, equally I feel that intuition alone isn’t sufficient for setting really important goals. I do come from an emergent change perspective but most particularly I believe that the quality of everything we do depends on the thinking that we do first (Nancy Kline). If there is paralysis it’s because the person is making assumptions (that they may not be aware of) and that’s the reason for my asking people to consider their assumptions in the Full Circle Model. When we can find these assumptions and test their truth, we often find they’re not true. And even if they are, beneath every limiting assumption is usually an untrue one. When we can replace it with a true, liberating assumption, paralysis is replaced by action! I do think that system 1 and system 2 thinking is about whole brain thinking – I am reminded here of Iain McGilchrist’s work on the left and right brain differences. He urges use of whole brain. I know Paul Brown and Virginia Brown in person, and was lucky enough to be invited to endorse their book which I think is a superb contribution to coaches understanding of neuroscience. I also love Dan Pink’s work on Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose and I do encourage people to consider these factors when setting goals for themselves or with / for others. Great to talk with you on here Liane!

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