Confusing Constraints with Goals

One issue that enrages me enough to rant about is is how often we conflate what is a goal with what is a constraint. While the differences may seem like nuance, confusing a business’ goals, with the the constraints they are subject to, leads to a lack of focus and ultimately failing to achieve what you really want.

Goals are clear objectives for what you want your end state to be, while constraints are given conditions, or circumstances that your solution must satisfy…so to paraphrase Seth Godin, a goal would be “to go to the moon”, and a constraint of that would be “to overcome gravity”. Sounds simple enough, right? Then why do these get confused so often, and how should we think about each one?

Constraints Need Goals

Thinking in constraints only is like playing not to lose, where your goal is to win. The most common example I often see is stating profit or revenue numbers as your goal…umm yeah, you’re supposed to make money, but that’s not all there is to your business is it? The best brands do not set their goal as to make money above any other vision (ok, well maybe Gordon Gekko does, but you saw what happened to him). Goals need to be the instantiaton of a larger vision that makes a compelling reason for the plan to all stakeholders. Yes, it often *has* to make money, but that’s the key – when we say *has to* we’re often speaking of a constraint.

Goals Need Constraints

On the other hand having great, visionary goals that are unchecked also leave room for the final execution to go awry (see “The Homer” for an example). In cases like this, vision can run too far afield without rooting the design and execution in real reality. Design by its definition is about managing constraints, including all of the financial metrics. Here the solution is only feasible if it achieves the goals and conforms to the set of constraints.

Example: Airlines

On a recent Continental / United flight, the proud “change agent” CEO, Jeff Smisek, stepped out on my screen to espouses their *goal* to “provide clean, safe, reliable air transportation”.

Way to shoot for the stars guys! I mean seriously, those are givens. How many airlines could go around crashing dirty planes and still have a business? What differentiates them from everyone else? Maybe its about providing more routes so travelers can get “wherever you need to, when you need to”. If “safety” was really their goal, I’d suggest to wrap naked passengers in bubble wrap. Poorly constructed goals, lead to poor execution, since they don’t really identify what really matters.

As Guy Kawasaki says: “Make Meaning”

The best view of this I’ve seen is in a video by Guy Kawasaki. In it he says:

“If you make meaning, you’ll probably make money. But if you set out to make money you will probably not make meaning and you will not make money”

He further defines goals as things such as “increasing quality of life”, “righting a wrong”, and “preventing the end of something good”. He does a better job than I could ever do, so see it here.

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