03041 Achieving Objectives: Go For the Goal

Product Manager. It’s the job where you get involved with everything, managing by influence across departments rather than direct authority via direct reports.

This is a job where you really, really need to figure out how to achieve goals. There are too many tasks coming at you from too many directions and priorities pulling you every which way.

A friend of mine who is a management consultant has a method he has practiced for years to make sure that he reaches his goals. He gradually realized that his approach to making something happen was markedly different from the approach most people seem to use. It’s almost the reverse of what the majority of people use, a majority that struggles mightily to reach their goals, and misses the target as often as not.

My friend learned to appreciate the uniqueness of his perspective and taught his approach to others. It’s called Working From the Goal.

Read on for an explanation of how to use a Working From the Goal approach to attain a whole lot more of your goals than you otherwise would.


Taking a Page From Understanding By Design

My friend discovered only recently that this same philosophy is embodied in the work of two individuals who apply it to the educational field. It’s something that people in the business world aren’t likely to be familiar with, because this approach is studied by people who are learning to be educators.

In the book Understanding by Design (Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 1999) authors Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe describe a way to teach students that is just like the idea of Working From the Goal.

Applied to learning, this is called Backward Design. Backward Design suggests that instead of starting by putting together lessons and activities, you must first and foremost figure out what you want to do, specifically the big idea that really crystallizes what you want to impart. Once you have the big idea, you can figure out how to assess whether a student has understood it, then build the necessary lesson plan, activities and other details to get where you want to go.

This is very much the inverse of the approach that most teachers take, where they look at the reading materials and then build activities and learning goals from them.

What It Is In a Nutshell

Okay, let me warn you this may be hard to get at first. The idea is that you need to work from the goal, versus working toward the goal. Most people work toward the goal, and in so doing run the risk of never getting there.

Always work back from the goal to figure out what you must do. To translate the Backward Design concept into business language, first identify the desired results (your goal), then determine the acceptable deliverables for it, and only then plan the tasks to get there.

How to Do It the Wrong Way

Maybe I’m just dense this way, but it took a lot more than the above explanation for me to grasp this. Everything about the above explanation makes sense, and probably sounds like what you do today. It helps to look at how it’s done the wrong way, working toward the goal.

Everyone talks about what their goals are, but most people focus on the things that are in the pipeline to get to the goal, starting activities with little real reflection on and clarification of the goal. They decide to do x, y, and z, but they never reach the goal they want. They wind up wasting time, energy, and money.

Very often people start by putting activities in place that move them in the direction of their goal, because they want to get moving right away. Moving is good. Just go for it! We’ve gotta get going!

The problem with that is you’re moving, but you may or may not know what your goal is, because you don’t firm it up. These activities, while taking up lots of time, don’t get you there, because you’re not focused.

So How Does “From” Get You There?

If you work from the goal, you put the goal in place from the start. You can work toward it. The difficulty you face is like not being able to see the forest for the trees. With all the details and distractions of daily activity, you need a clear goal.

When you work from the goal, you will constantly be putting things in place that support where you want to go. You are much more able to see when activities don’t contribute to the goal, and cut them out of your schedule.

An Example: Winning a Gold Medal

Perhaps an example will be helpful. If you want to win the 500 meter dash at the Olympics, you can’t start by saying “I’m going to work hard, improve my times, get a good coach, and then I should be able to win.”

Instead, you start with “I’m going to win the 500 Meter. Now, what do I need to do to make it happen?” If you use this approach, you’ll probably plan many more specific activities, cutting out things that don’t fit with your goal.

Well Defined Goals: Vision Power

This touches upon other advice for achieving goals, which is that the only reachable goal is one that is realistic, and sufficiently detailed and clear.

Often, when you challenge people (the many people who are coming to you to set “your” goals), they say that they can’t be more specific about the goal, they just don’t know. In such a case you’re better off not doing anything. (Try telling that to your boss!)

People have a difficult time working toward the unknown. If you establish a goal, it becomes the known, it becomes reality. Very much like the concept of vision that is so talked about in business these days. Paint a picture, create a vision, and let it guide you and your teammates all in the same direction, consistently.

Wandering Around

By contrast, when you work toward the goal, you get bogged down in the process. As one educator described it on a message board, it’s like you are “privileging the activities themselves over the results they should yield.” Because your thinking is too short term, you don’t keep the goal in mind.

Another Example: Defining a Process

A good business example to contrast the two approaches is to apply them to defining a process using a flow chart. If you start at the goal and work backward, the steps will all fall into place. This is working from the goal.

But if you start at beginning, at the first step, you may not make the right decisions as you work your way forward toward the goal.

(I have to guiltily admit that I’ve always done flow charts starting from the first step. I must say it has led to many revisions of the chart as I progress. I guess I had better try it the other way next time.)


Here’ a quick list of steps to summarize Working From the Goal:

  1. Set a goal. Make it clear, specific, and realistic.
  2. Create an assessment to determine if the goal has been met. In a business setting, this would be deliverables with specific content that will tell you whether you’re there.
  3. Plan the activities you need to complete, working backwards from the goal.

It takes a while to get this concept, especially with the wording of working from vs. toward the goal. But it’s worth trying this technique for a challenging project you face that has been difficult to tackle, to see if it doesn’t get you to your goal faster and more directly.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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