My take on why goal cascades are harmful and what to do instead
If collective goals matter, you need some way of creating coherence.
“The very business of getting an organisation made up of individuals, no matter how disciplined, to pursue a collective goal produces friction just as surely as applying the brakes of a car.”
Stephen Bungay, The Art of Action
As long as it’s more than one person AND it’s important that we achieve some collective goal THEN we need some way of facilitating coherent action across an organisation. Without coherence, you’ll see a lot of duplicate, competing, or missing efforts.
The typical way of creating coherence is by cascading goals
The best version of cascading goals works as follows:
- The top leadership of the organisation determines an overall vision and strategic intent;
- This is delegated to the next level of the organisation who translate it to their local context AND provide feedback;
- This continues for each level: convey intent translated to local context, back-and-forth feedback.
Cascading goals are a sub-optimal way of creating coherence
There is no reason to assume that the primary driver for a goal should always come from the top of an organisation. The senior-most leaders of an organisation do not have perfect knowledge, nor perfect reasoning and depending on the specific context, they don’t even have the best knowledge or reasoning.
Goal cascades are inherently delayed. It takes time for each level to process the goal, translate it to locally relevant context, provide any necessary feedback, cascade the goals further down-the-line.
Optimal action never comes from simply aligning to top-down goals as they cascade through the organisation. Not every part of the organisation contributes the same amount to every goal. Some goals, especially operational ones, are not apparent broadly throughout the organisation.
Persistent models enable parallel goal setting
Pace layering refers to how different components or “layers” of systems change at different rates (i.e., they have a different pace of change).
Pace layering applies to organisations too.
Things that don’t change that often, what John Cutler refers to as the “persistent model”:
- The overall shared mission;
- The shared model of reality, that is, the coherent overall strategic narrative based on data and insights;
- The shared beliefs on how to succeed (aka doctrine)
Things that change more frequently, what John Cutler refers to as “point-in-time goals”:
- Specific bets / projects;
- OKRs (annual, quarterly);
- Delivery plans
Having clear, persistent models allows for simultaneous parallel planning of point-in-time goals, while limiting drift.
Regular synchronization addresses any inevitable drift with parallel goal setting
Even with shared, persistent models, it is inevitable that parallel goal-setting exhibits some kind of drift. Regular synchronization addresses this drift.
Annual and quarterly planning is less about regular goal setting as it is about regular goal synchronization.
Develop persistent models as a network, not just top-down
Instead of a top-down tree where teams are waiting for visions and strategies to come down from on-high, think of every node in a network developing an opinion about vision and strategy in parallel based on past communication and current information they’re seeing in their local context and ongoing synchronisation with other teams.