Systems Thinking – System Archetypes – Eroding Goals

We’ve been talking about System Archetypes. These are the types of systems that recur in a number of environments and are easily recognizable. The system archetype we’re going to talk about today is called Eroding Goals. Eroding goals are caused by a delay in the results of the actions we take to improve something. If you recall, systems operate on feedback — positive and negative feedback — and delays in the cause and effect cycles between elements of the system.

So in eroding goals you start with some condition and an ambition to improve it. There is some gap between your condition and the goal. This gap causes a dynamic tension. Senge represents it well in his book, The Fifth Discipline, by showing a hand stretching a rubber band. The tension of that rubber band pulls up on the condition, but with the same force it puts pressure to pull down the goal. You have two possible results. You can either take action that will move the condition towards the goal or you can soften the goal and pull it down closer to your condition.

What happens in eroding goals is you start by taking positive action, doing the right thing, but there is a time delay between the activity you take and seeing the positive results of the action you take. This time delay, this lack of positive reinforcement of your action, causes a loss of commitment to the work you’re doing. To relieve the pressure you lower your goals to reduce the dynamic tension that’s in play.

An example of this might be if your company releases three new products each year and there’s a goal to increase this number to six. This goal drives increased investment as the company moves towards increasing the capacity and capability to release six new products. But there is a delay in the positive results from the actions taken to increase capacity. This lack of results causes those making the investment to lose confidence and commitment to the initiative. So, to avoid making increased investments — in their minds eye perhaps throwing good money after bad — they lower their goals from six to four; an incremental increase instead of a dramatic increase.

The antidote to eroding goals is simply setting good goals. The setting of good goals comes from a process called learning first. Study your situation; study the distance between your condition and your goal. Then make goals that are achievable. This ties directly to learning first, learning cycles, and the EAC promoted LAMDA learning tool. If you’re not familiar with the LAMDA learning tool, I suggest you look into it. One way of doing so is to contact EAC.

Contact us to learn more about how Systems Thinking and the application of our Product Development Operating System can help your organization become more efficient, productive, innovative, and competitive. Follow Bill at