The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Messy objectives

One of the teachings most of us have heard is that goals should be SMART.

It is one of several acronyms associated with goals. This may already give it away that there are many ways to describe goals. Not all of which can be useful in every situation.

There are situations in which there is no real use for SMART goals. They tend to limit creativity and flexibility. And there are situations in which the objective can’t be described as one doesn’t have enough understanding of the outcome.

If one takes the classification in purpose, goals, and tasks proposed by David Clutterbuck, then a goal is there to serve a purpose and can be reached through a sequence of tasks that can be described individually. Clutterbuck also describes three different levels of purpose, a pragmatic purpose that is usually addressing the short term, a grounded purpose that takes a wider perspective, and a higher purpose that addresses the long term and seeks a high impact.

With a pragmatic purpose to attract customers, it can be easy to define a SMART objective of attracting a thousand customers in the next 6 months to test an existing new product.

Shifting that purpose to a higher purpose, it can become an idea to save the world. In that case, the objective may be to achieve that a continent becomes carbon neutral. It’s an objective that one can imagine, but immediately when stepping into it, it becomes clear that already the idea to make this objective measurable is a project in itself. It is also an objective that requires involving so many stakeholders that it becomes difficult to make it time bound if it also is supposed to be achievable.

In a way, this goal is messy.

One may still give oneself an idea of when it is going to be achieved, but actually, that date will be more of a milestone that will be used to evaluate the progress made on that project. It may also be a moment in time to reevaluate if the chosen path is the best one, as technology might have changed all the premises used when stepping into the project.

Another type of messy goal is for example the idea to be a lifelong learner. It allows us to use anything that one notices to fulfill that objective. Such an objective is so broad that it is difficult to make it worthwhile. However, this changes if one finds a grounded purpose that assists in making this long-term objective viable in the medium term. And it may become realistic whenever a pragmatic purpose serves that objective in the short term.

Seen on its own, the messy goal simply is messy.

It is the ability to see it in relationship with the different levels of purpose that creates some clarity. And it is by revisiting it regularly and by establishing the links with tasks and purpose that assists in making a messy objective achievable.


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