Goals: A Self-Limiting Proposition

The establishment of a goal is generally based on someplace, or some state, one wants to be at in the future, as compared to where one is currently in the present. The variance, or gap, between the current state and the desired future state is then used to create motivation for the activity required to transform the current state into the future state. The difficulty here lies in the systemic nature of the structure which is created from the underlying mental model. What happens at the end of a 100 yard dash? The finish line has been reached and the runners stop! This is a general tendency which accompanies goals, and when the activity is dependent on the distance from the goal, the situation is actually even worse than with a 100 yard dash.

The establishment of a goal essentially represents the creation of a balancing structure. In this structure the difference between the goal and the current state creates a gap which promotes activity. The activity tends to move the current state toward the goal. As the current state moves close and closer to the goal the gap gets smaller and smaller. And as the gap gets smaller and smaller there is less of an inducement for further activity to move the current state toward the goal. Over time progress declines per unit time. Its like trying to walk to a doorway and each step taken is half the remaining distance to the door. Each step takes you a bit closer, yet you never really reach the door.

As the above graphs show, as the current state approaches the goal the activity declines. The activity declines because the gap declines. And the gap declines because the current state approaches the goal. This all simply boils down to the fact that the result is limited by the establishment of the goal and the management of activity to move the current state to the goal. So is there a resolution to this situation? Of course, or why would I have started to write this paper in the first place!

Before moving on to the resolution a bit of an aside might be in order. There is an implication in the above that activity is simply driven by the size of the gap. In most cases this is only partly true. In most situations the gap is sufficiently large that the activity is actually limited by the resources available to produce activity. This is represented by the diagram at the right. When the resources available are less than the activity that would result form the influence of the gap then the activity that results is that which the resources have the capacity to produce. This is represented in the graphs below where there is a fixed resource level of 3 during the period of the runs.

The above graphic indicate that the current state appears to grow in an apparent liner fashion for almost 5 weeks. The activity is in fact constant over this period as it is limited by the 3 resources available to produce activity. Once activity moves the current state to where the gap is less than the resources available the activity becomes a function of the gap and there is actually excess capacity going to waste. This is quite evident in the following diagram in which excess capacity has been explicit added to the model. The associated graph depicts the excess capacity as activity declines.

Ever heard the comment, "Activity expands to fill the time available."? Activity also declines to fill the space available!

At this point its probably a good idea if I get back to my comment from above about a resolution to the situation of goals being a self-limiting factor of results. Suppose we change the structure so that rather than base activity on the gap between the goal and the current state we base activity on progress. This structure should then look more like the diagram at the right. If we now simulation this structure we find it produces the diagrams depicted below.

What the graphs indicate is that as activity increases the current state increases. And as the current state increases progress increases. And finally as progress increases activity increases. We gone full circle and have produced a reinforcing loop rather than a structure which is self-limiting and balances as in the initial goals structure.

The graphs above provide a very enticing scenario that just happens to be false. The difficulty lies in the fact that all this activity isn't for free. Activity is the result of available resources applied to producing activity. By modifying the structure to include limited resources in the diagram at the left we end up with a graph of the situation as depicted on the right. The more realistic situation is that activity is relatively limited for some period due to limited progress. Once progress begins to be produced and sensed activity begins an exponential climb, at least until it runs into a resource limit. At this point activity becomes flat and progress continues at a rather linear rate. This will continue until progress runs into some other limiting factor. There are always limits to growth along the way somewhere, and sometimes they are not always tangible, as will be shown shortly!

The potential difficulty with this structure has to do with the influence of a mental model called "enough." If the actors hold a belief that a certain amount of progress is sufficient they tend to begin to rest on their laurels. With the belief that they've done good enough so to speak the activity which would have continued to increase begins to decline. The actors think they've progressed enough, or maybe believe that additional progress isn't possible. The effects of this are shown in the graphs below. Notice that although progress continues to increase as the current state increases the activity level around week 10 takes a sharp dip for the worse.

The impact of the mental model of "enough" has a detrimental affect on progress achieved in the 10 weeks, i.e., 7 as opposed to 10 in the previous structure limited only by resources.

The best way to overcome this situation is alter the structure so that rather than continually consider progress based on a single reference point that doesn't change, the reference point is periodically reset to the current state. This results in progress being measured during a period as opposed to the initial reference point. Even this presents a difficulty as progress is likely to become more difficult in time. The methods that were employed to create progress during the previous periods are likely to no longer work. The actors in the system will have to migrate their approach to activities which create progress from incrementally changing, to redesigning, to rethinking their methods.

In conclusion I supposed I should acknowledge that some may contend that this is may be a bit like driving while looking in the rear-view mirror. In response I would say that using this approach without a vision which provides guidance as to the direction in which one is going would be ludicrous. Vision should be used to continually reassess movement of the current state to ensure progress is in an appropriate direction.

Postscript: All the models created for this paper were done with Vensim PLE from Ventana Systems. You can download this software for the Mac or Windows from their web site at Vensim PLE. You can also download the following .zip file which contains all the .mdl files [goals.zip - 5k]. Please note that these were not done as traditional stock & flow diagrams but as systems thinking diagrams, which were simulated directly.

March 4, 1999 Notes from Russ Brookes to Consider:

1. Motivate activity not by distance to a goal, as your motivation will
decrease as you appraoch your goal. But rather motivate by progress from a
starting point, as that increases as you get better.
2. To maintain motivation reset your starting point when it has become a
forgotten memory, or when distance travelled from starting point seems
"enough", as these will become limiting factors in future progress.
3. Progress can be limited by not enough resources - when you hit this
limitation increase resources or effective resources either by literally
adding more resources, or by freeing up resources by working smarter.

The only thing I would add is that you still might want to use "motivation
by distance to goal" to get things rolling (like the starting winding in a
motor - used to start, but not used thereafter - in fact if you engage it
after the motor makes a terrible groaning noise and things slow down in an
ugly way). Although I suppose you could pick an arbitrary point behind you
and say "Hey, look at how far we've come. We're good - let's go further".

theWay of Systems * Feedback * Musings
Copyright © 2004 Gene Bellinger