My take on why goal cascades are harmful and what to do instead

Jason Yip
4 min readOct 16, 2022

Riffing off of John Cutler’s post 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.

Duplicate efforts: “Oh, I didn’t know you were doing that too!”; Conflicting efforts: “We need to make the pegs round.” “We need to make the holes squre.”; Missing efforts: “I assume someone is dealing with the bridge crossing problem?”
Duplicate, conflicting, or missing efforts

The typical way of creating coherence is by cascading goals

The best version of cascading goals works as follows:

  1. The top leadership of the organisation determines an overall vision and strategic intent;
  2. This is delegated to the next level of the organisation who translate it to their local context AND provide feedback;
  3. This continues for each level: convey intent translated to local context, back-and-forth feedback.
“This is our overall vision and strategic intent. Please translate.” Picture of goals cascading to each level of an org tree with feedback loops at each level.
Goal cascade

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.

“Wow, that’s brilliant!… unfortunately you’re not the leader so we’ll have to align to this other goal instead.”
Goals don’t always need to come from the formal leaders

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…

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Jason Yip

Senior Manager Product Engineering at Grainger. Extreme Programming, Agile, Lean guy. Ex-Spotify, ex-ThoughtWorks, ex-CruiseControl