9 Principles for Decomposing Goals

Type: Principles
Sources: D. Doerner ('The Logic of Failure'), own thoughts


to explain why - for a complex, dynamic, interrelated endeavour - it is paramount to decompose global, complex, vague goals into specific goals.

Also see: Specifying Goals, Courses of Action

A global goal is a goal which has only few (one) evaluation criteria.
A vague goal is a goal which has only few (none) measurable evaluation criteria.
A complex goal is one that can be decomposed in two or more goals that are more specific.
An implicit goal is one you're not conscious of now.
Note: Quite often it is possible to say "problem" for "goal", as a goal is a problem turned upside down.

Principles and Notes

P1: Using a single word for a goal seems to imply that there is one thing the word stands for. Example: "User-friendlyness" Looking closer, we find that there ist no such one thing, it is composed of several other things (subgoals), like "percieved performance", "nice GUI" etc.
Note: This decomposition is subjective.

P2: The subgoals may contradict each other, like "percieved performance" and "wealth of functions". This is why we need to decompose the goal: otherwise we have a single goal which is in itself contradictory. This makes people feel uncertain and insecure.
Note: Often people don't know why they feel uneasy when confronted with such a goal.

P3: Subgoals usually will be handled in one to three different ways:

  • dissection of central and peripheral goals, to be able to focus on the central ones
  • dissection of important and urgent goals, also to be able to focus, but dependent on outside constraints like "deadline"
  • delegation of the goal, to get rid of the difficult goal

P4: Conflicting (sub)goals get handled in two ways:

  • finding a balance in reaching these goals, i. e. compromise
  • ignoring one of the goals completely for the good of the others
  • eupemistically re-arrange the whole system of goals, for the contradictions to dissappear ("if we had 'new' citizens…")

P5: Implicit goals can be uncovered by asking "What do I want to keep?" while aiming at some change.

P6: Confronted with a complex, global, vague goal, we usually find a (wrong) subgoal either because it seems apparent or because we are able to solve it. After a while this makes us feel even more uncertain, because we seem to not get closer to the goal.

  • Note: An apparent goal may not be the important nor urgent, and may be perpheral.
  • Note: In the IT world, this behavior surfaces as the confusion of means and ends. E. g., people think gathering data is the end, while it is a means to empower decion making. We usually do so because we feel secure in what we do.

P7: Confronted with a complex, global, vague goal, we proceed "ad hoc" in the sense we don't care for future problems caused by our problem solving. More uncertainty.
Note: "Ad hoc" has its advantage, it's better than doing nothing. This of course also is dangerous if we feel pressed to do something.

P8: Confronted with a complex, global, vague goal, we proceed "ad hoc" in the sense we ignore implicit goals. More uncertainty.

P9: Ultimately, feeling really uncertain and unsecure, we tend to dive deep into one of the goals and ignore the rest. This goal is the new holy grail.

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