What makes a good goal?

goals
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John Allspaw has a great tweet on problem discovery:

I’ve always loved the tweet, but I only recently noticed the paper he cites in the thread. It’s called “The Art of Problem Discovery: Adaptive Thinking for Innovation and Growth”, by Brian Mathews.

In the prologue, the paper tells the origin story of Swiffer – Proctor & Gamble’s billion-dollar hit product line. It all started with a simple question: “how can we make the floors cleaner?

When the question was posed to the company’s chemists, they got to work on trying to make a better cleaning solution. After years, they hadn’t made any progress. Then the problem was posed to an outside design firm. The firm chose to start by observing people actually cleaning their floors. What they discovered was that the problem had nothing to do with the cleaning solution – it was the household mop; people were spending more time cleaning their mops then cleaning their floors! And the Swiffer was born.

The prologue closes with:

Our approach to problems is affected by the manner in which they are presented …. It’s vital that we are able to shift perspectives when we need to generate different types of results. If our thinking is too narrow then we may miss breakthroughs. How we formulate problems is just as important as how we solve them.

I think this is really profound.

So what does this have to do with goals?

I think in a way, a good goal is really just a proxy to a well framed problem statement. And the act of goal setting is really just a proxy to the act of problem discovery.

I think in a way, a good goal is really just a proxy to a well framed problem statement. And the act of goal setting is really just a proxy to the act of problem discovery.

Fundamentally, a good goal reflects a good understanding of the problem. We often skip that really important step of problem discovery and simply forge ahead with a goal that is vague or poorly understood. This rarely leads to success. This is really unfortunate because it leads to a lot of waste and missed opportunities. Sometimes, the best initial goal is simply to go through the problem discovery process.

The relationship between problems and goals

A problem statement is a question. At a basic level, a goal is really just a translation of a problem statement into a directive that guides execution.

With the Swiffer, the designers didn’t change the original goal – they changed the question, which led them to a better goal. Through problem discovery, the designers found that the problem was the cleaning tool. The mop was an ineffective tool for the job. Floors will not be cleaner if people don’t clean them. The task was too onerous. This led them to a different question:

How can we make the floors faster & easier to clean?

This translates into a straight-forward goal statement:

Make cleaning the floors significantly faster and easier.

The original observations of people cleaning their floors suggested there was room for much more than just an incremental improvement. With the new problem statement and goal, it no longer made sense for the chemists to be called upon to even try to solve this problem.

As the Swiffer story shows us, poorly framed problems lead to poorly framed goals; which can lead you far astray.

The characteristics of a good goal

Most discussions of goals are concerned with quantification. Which metric are we trying to move? by how much? by when? These are important questions, but should not be where you start.

Getting goals right qualitatively is much more important than getting them right quantitatively. You can set all the metrics and targets you like, but if you aren’t solving the right problem, what’s the point? Specifying the concrete metrics and targets is tempting to do early because it feels like progress. Quantifying goals makes them feel more concrete and executable.

A good goal says nothing about how you get there. Leave the how to the people doing the hard work of accomplishing it. That’s what gets the creative juices flowing and stirs imagination. That’s where you give people autonomy and the opportunity to take ownership. You provide them full agency in pursuit of the goal.

In the Swiffer example, the goal could have been “invent a better mop“, but that would be narrowing the solution space too much. What if the best cleaning alternative was completely unlike the mop?

A goal should be ambitious, but reasonable. It’s hard to get motivated about unambitious goals, because accomplishing them doesn’t feel as meaningful or impactful.

Larger goals that span teams, departments, or organizations should cascade well. The goal should still make sense at every organizational level and be meaningfully executable at each level. If you’re asked to contribute to a larger goal, but it’s not clear how you could meaningfully contribute, it’s probably not a good goal.

Conclusion

Next time you are coming up with a goal, pause and make sure you haven’t skipped the problem discovery phase. The search is half the battle. Coming up with a good goal can be hard. But it’s well worth the effort to get it right. It can make all the difference in how the work is approached and the chance of the right problem getting solved.

I’ll have more to say about executing on goals in a future post. Stay tuned!

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