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by Damon O'Sullivan
March 2015

A new project starts, a new group of lovely people politely discuss the goals and objectives.

It’s important to start with a common understanding, right? It’s important to have shared goals, right?

I’m beginning to think the focus of establishing common goals is misguided and a wasteful distraction.

I’ve been consulting for 15 years, during which time I’ve worked across so many different organisations that group dynamics become pretty easy to spot.

Typically project stakeholders quickly identify and endorse some basic project goals. These seem to represent a clear agreement, but they often leave plenty of room for interpretation. As the project commences, members of the project team often quietly begin to doubt the others really ‘get’ the goals.

As the project goes even deeper people begin to lose confidence in the process altogether, because it seems their goals are not going to be achieved. 

A cult of goal worshippers

The problem with goals

One issue with goals can be that they can prevent the team from taking on new information during the project.

Research insights and other inputs can be discarded or ignored because they fall outside the scope that the goals define. In a world of generative research and agile practice, goals can become a rigid constraint.

The other, more human issue, is that people can very rarely displace their own goals in favour of the common ones. The famous Australian politician, Jack Lang, once said, “Always back the horse named self-interest, son. It’ll be the only one trying.” People tend to mistrust others motivations, often for good reason.

The danger is that agreeing to goals gives a sense of being united, but the being united bit is really hard and requires continuous effort.

Collective Impact Framework

The Collective Impact Framework offers a useful alternative. Its aim is to develop a ‘common agenda’ and agree on ‘shared measurement’.

The emphasis then shifts towards a group understanding of the problem, to agreeing on actions and agreeing on a measurement framework.

The problem is then understood by gathering diverse input and data——not from someone's own view of the problem——and the following actions are agreed with clear responsibilities.

Now the emphasis on measurement decreases the role of opinion——evidence can lead the way.

We’ve been trying it out

One project that has ran particularly well for us was a new responsive website we built for Business Victoria. It was one where our team and the client collaborated deeply. The outcome was a real co-creation, one where no-one could really remember who had done what, but everyone was proud of the result.

When the project began there were existing goals, but the user research and desktop research we did soon created a shared view of the problem that surpassed them.

We then worked on developing ‘design principles’ which gave us a shared sense of purpose. With these two blocks in place, establishing the agenda of work and measurement become very straight forward.

I wasn’t aware of the Collective Impact Framework at the time of the project, but I think we more or less applied this approach with much success. The framework may be designed to tackle large, systemic problems, but the principles apply just as well on a typical organisational level.

I understand projects need a point; project owners need to identify the outcomes they need to get the project started. I think it’s just a matter of understanding that ’project goals’ don’t necessarily help to bring groups together or succeed. It’s more important to develop a shared view of the problem, purpose and agenda and find a way to measure success together.


This essay has been republished on Medium.

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Beth has written a response to this essay, titled The Importance of Shared Purpose.




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