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Setting Goals vs. Cultivating Healthy Systems

We’ve been having a lot of discussions recently around how systems approaches differ from the results-based management approaches that our community has become very familiar with. One specific topic that has consistently come up with our partners is the mindset shift required to move from a “Mission Accomplished” mentality to cultivating a healthy dynamic system that produces desired results.

We like to think about this as a shift from setting goals and a plan for achieving them, toward influencing a system to make it stronger over time. This is particularly important when you are working with a complex problem where success is not a final end-state, but where a continued journey of improvement is more appropriate (think climate change, poverty, conflict). In those complex, dynamic systems, goals may still be valuable, but they are not the most effective way to move toward and maintain positive results.


Photo Credit: Beth Kanter, licensed under CC 2.0

Here are three reasons that setting goals is not as effective as cultivating healthy systems when you are addressing complex social issues:

1. Goals don’t lead to long term progress or sustainable change

When we set goals, we work to achieve them as an end – to declare success upon their completion. For a complex problem, you cannot declare success as a stopping point. At best, your success will be short-lasting as the context changes and new goals need to be set. Or it may create a “yo-yo” effect where you work hard to achieve a goal, stop that project (or see funding to that project decrease) upon achieving it, and then, as results fade, set another ambitious goal, compensating for the previous decline.

Setting goals also focuses our vision on the “short-term” (really, any specific time period is shorter than forever!) and decreases the ability or incentive to see through the long-term vision that you want to last. Of course, we are not always looking for long-term sustainability of a result, or there are some results that will last forever by their very nature (e.g., eliminating a disease forever) – in those cases, setting a goal may be more appropriate. But by its definition, sustainability cannot be a one-time goal.

2. Goals are based on assumptions, and risk failure if those assumptions don’t come true

You can’t know for sure what changes to your situation might arise during your work toward a goal. Setting out specific plans to achieve a goal does not take that dynamic complexity and emergent behavior into account.

However, you can set metrics that indicate progress in a certain direction and use that feedback to adjust and improve your actions. Feedback loops let you continue your work of cultivating a healthy system without the risk of false assumptions impeding your progress.

3. Goals focus on ‘doing’ but do not affect the nature, attitude, or culture at the heart of the issue

Setting goals puts an emphasis on products and decreases the focus on processes. In our work, balancing product and process is crucial – because the tangible products are often the incentives for stakeholders to engage, but understanding of effective processes (or how to navigate a system) is what must be left behind for long-term results. When we want to see lasting change, we need to look beyond the symptoms to the underlying structures of the system that create patterns of behavior. Working toward a vision and establishing the processes for local actors to continue that effort is more effective for sustaining results.

Certainly, there are times that setting goals will be more important than cultivating healthy systems, or when the two complement one another. But for a complex issue, we want to work toward systems that are resilient and sustainable, and this requires releasing short-term goals, embracing flexibility to adjust to changes around you, and building a culture (or system or process) that can maintain itself for the long-run.

Here are a few examples of setting goals vs. cultivating healthy systems:

Setting a Goal Cultivating a Healthy System
Lose 10 pounds this year Eating healthy and getting exercise regularly
Grow GDP by 5% per year for the next 3 years Managing incentives for individuals and businesses to engage in productive activities that improve quality of life for all citizens
Cut infant mortality rates in half by 2025 Increasing equitable access to health care, vaccines and medical knowledge
Decrease unemployment to under 5% by the end of this year Maintaining strong communication and collaboration between labor demand and workforce training / education