The Nature of Goal Orientation

I think a lot about what specific competencies are needed when starting something, but even more fundamentally, how does someone approach work (and life)? My experience is that there are goal-oriented people and there are process-oriented people.  Finding goal-oriented people is one of the most crucial determinants of startup success - no amount of expertise can substitute for goal orientation.

There is implicit bias in both orientations, but not all biases are created equal.  Goal orientation subordinates process to outcomes.  As a result, there is sometimes a tendency to ignore or undervalue the importance of frameworks, checklists, and details, though in my experience truly goal-oriented people are quite intuitive at abstracting useful and repeatable approaches from their experiences. Planning and process are also not the same thing – done right, planning is simply the division of larger goals into smaller ones.  Even so, goal orientation is a vastly preferable bias.  You can learn organization (and the most effective people are constantly re-learning it), but motivation is much harder.  By the same token, consultants can help to improve your processes, but they can’t define your goals for you.

Process orientation, on the other hand, actually subverts your goals, under the subtle guise of helping you achieve them.  Uncritical acceptance of process creates an alibi for failure.  When things go wrong, a process-oriented person thinks “I did all I could while following the process to the letter, so maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.” Without a healthy institutional skepticism, process easily becomes a goal in itself. To be fair, processes and goals can both be destructive if they are not subject to revision, but process is fundamentally tied to predictability and routine, whereas goals require constant thought and re-examination to remain effective.

The most inventive organizations are more concerned with limiting process than perfecting it. Apple’s revitalization began when they started to re-imagine a hardware problem (personal devices) as a software problem. If process had been the dominant consideration, Apple would have kept refining their old product lines until they faded into irrelevance.  By the same token, many enormous failures affecting society writ large can be attributed in part to relying on process while ignoring the substance (Enron, the subprime collapse, countless failed technology acquisitions).

Everyone claims to be goal-oriented (it’s probably one of the top resume clichés), but the norm is that people want to be told what to do.  Freedom is scary, partly because it is new and unfamiliar, but mostly because the onus will be on you to succeed once the security blanket of process is taken away.  Truly meritocratic and goal-oriented organizations are also quite rare, so it’s easy to mistake boredom and frustration with bureaucracy for real self-determination.  During both Internet bubbles, countless career big-company employees decided they wanted to “join a startup”, without really asking why or realizing that they were trying to be different in the exact same way as everyone else (the word “join” isn’t an accident either).   Ironically, when asked by hiring managers what they would bring to the table, these people would typically deliver lengthy homages to their current company’s processes. 

One of the most interesting things about goal and process orientation is what part is constitutional and cultural.  Some people are natural insurgents, who will orient and achieve the goal so intuitively that they may not even appear disruptive to the casual observer.  Others have been raised in cultures that value conformity and process.  Just as many genes are only expressed when the right stressors are present, a naturally goal-oriented person may not emerge until landing in the right environment. The converse is much less common, however – process-oriented people tend to be exposed fairly quickly in truly goal-oriented environments where there is little concept of playing along.

The conflict between goal and process orientation is exceptionally relevant to planning one’s career.  We’ve all seen picture-perfect, cookie-cutter resumes that are obviously a result of process orientation,.  What’s more interesting is when people try to design rules and processes to reverse-engineer a major career shift.  There are plenty of “experts” who will tell you to get experience in the private sector before doing a stint in government (or vice versa), or that you should learn “fundamentals” at a  Fortune 500 company before joining an early-stage startup.  With all due respect, these people completely miss the point of having goals.  It should be more obvious with really unorthodox career arcs, but even so, many people are apt to read about Steve Jobs and think “Ok, so I should drop out of college, but take a calligraphy class, and get fired from my own company before making a triumphant comeback.”

Of course, there are plenty of perfectly good environments for process-oriented people.  The problem is when they land in the wrong place and both the person and team suffer.  It really comes down to honestly understanding your strengths and weaknesses, as an individual and as an organization.