A Table for Three or Four for Goal Setting?



How many goals should your credit union have juggling in the air at a strategic planning session? The magic number seems to be either three or four. CUB’s training expert makes a compelling case for both digits, sharing insights gleaned from his personal experience to back it up.

What is the optimum number? Phil Collins sang about “One More Night.” In the original “Point Break”film, Gary Busey’s character demanded, “Utah, get me two!” A sitcom from the late 1970s and early 1980s claimed that “Three’s Company.” And every avid Notre Dame football fan will tell you about “The Four Horsemen” who made up the team’s backfield in 1924. But what is the optimum number of goals to set for the credit union during that ubiquitous strategic planning retreat? I encourage my clients to set the table for either three or four big-picture goals. Allow me to explain.
It seems as though in many cases in life, three is the magic number. Three outs away from winning the game. A three-egg omelet for breakfast to start the day. Third time’s a charm. Three may be the prime number for goals as well.
A number of years ago I attended a seminar on mentoring and management. The facilitator stated that when working with subordinates on their goals for the coming year,having three objectives was the optimum number. She explained studies that theorized that the human mind seems to work best handling three tasks at once and would be at peak focus at that capacity. She even suggested that multitasking only two responsibilities at one time was actually boring for such an advanced mechanism as the human brain.
While that concept has obviously stuck with me for nearly two decades, my attempt to find the research that substantiates what I will call the “Theory of Three” has thus far been unsuccessful. The closest piece of information I have found was a study by Stanford referenced in the 2009 article “Multitasking a Barrier to Leading Sustainable Innovation?” The article suggests. “The optimum number is two projects per person.” However, the author also advises that two is a “good benchmark” and the actual number “obviously varies by role.” Furthermore, the author concludes with the implication that four or more projects “hurts my brain to even think about,” not three or more. That allows me to extrapolate that three may be the healthy stretch for most professionals.

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