Align to a Driving Purpose

People are working. Their efforts should produce something important. But…

Unfocused activities produce poor results

A goal is an objective to achieve, usually within a specified time limit. Goals can motivate, guide, and align us. We may commit to goals, and engage. When we fail, we may marshal effort and resources to overcome. When we succeed, we may commit to more challenging goals. But unrelated goals lack synergy to support a greater purpose.


Several forces constrain a good answer to the question, “How should we choose and use goals?”

Goals without Context

When teams receive goals without a purpose (“tell” goals), they perform worse than those that receive goals with a purpose (“tell and sell” goals) (Kleingeld et al. 2011). Teams that participated in goal-setting performed the same as those that received goals with purpose.

Negotiated goals improve outcomes. Some authors argue that self-set goals create higher motivation intrinsically. Technically, this is not true; instead, self-set goals involving negotiation with other people inspires more communication, reveals purpose, improves strategizing and planning, and raises self-confidence (Locke et al. 1997).

Prestige can provide purpose. Studies show that public declarations of goal commitment increase performance (Hollenbeck, Williams, & Klein, 1989).

In a sense, “purpose” is a larger, longer-term goal, which shorter-term goals then serve. When such a purpose exists and is well-understood, teams and individuals seem to perform better.


Individuals and teams given challenging goals—goals that are specific, measurable, difficult and attainable—perform better than those given easy or “do your best” goals (Locke & Latham 1990, O’Leary-Kelly et al. 1994, Kleingeld et al. 2011).

Beyond attainability, performance typically declines with difficulty. Obviously-impossible goals discourage most individuals and teams before they even start, while almost-possible goals remain motivating until impossibility becomes clear.

Individuals who commit more readily perform better as difficulty increases. In a series of experiments, subjects chose whether to commit to different goals. Their rate of goal commitment predicted their persistence. The lowest two-thirds of people, in goal commitment rate, showed a rapid performance drop as a goal became unattainable; they were easily discouraged. However, the highest third sustained their highest performance, even when the goal was clearly unattainable (Erez et al. 1984). For these subjects, impossible goals were still motivating; they were gung-ho. We have found no approach to increase gung-ho attitudes, but people who know themselves to be gung-ho might more safely choose unattainable goals.


Individuals and teams with higher confidence in their ability to achieve a goal (even when based on a false narrative) persevere longer and more creatively on difficult and unachievable goals before they quit .

Positive feedback, even in failure, generates better future performance long-term. When subjects received feedback framed as gaining ground toward a goal, they sustained high self-confidence, raised self-set goals, felt more satisfied, and supported collaboration. But when they received feedback framed as failing to meet the goal, self-confidence plummeted, self-set goals decreased, dissatisfaction increased, and they collaborated less [zotpressInText item=”{3947558:BRFLYTKV}].

We can express the same outcome as either avoidance or approach goals. Avoidance goals seek to avoid or eliminate an undesired outcome, such as “avoid losing market share”. Approach goals require us to reach or maintain performance, such as “maintain market share.” Avoidance goals undermine motivation, reduce self-confidence and result in poorer performance in comparison to approach goals (Elliot et al. 2007).


Mastery goals (sometimes called “learning goals”) seek to develop skill and understanding; performance goals seek to demonstrate skill. Defining goals as mastery goals improves our success. When people were given mastery goals, such as “identify and try six new strategies for increasing market share” or performance goals, such as “increase market share,” those given mastery goals performed far better (Seijts et al. 2005).

Mastery, autonomy and purpose motivate higher performance in complex tasks (Pink 2011). Autonomy is the subject’s perceived freedom in choosing the approach. Autonomy seems to degrade the performance of low-skilled workers in some cases (Gjedrem and Rege 2017), but results in more creative solutions in other cases (Miron-Spektor et al. 2015). Purpose is the extent to which the goal contributes to a purpose aligned with the subject’s interests.

Many managers try to reward better performance on complex tasks with monetary rewards. However, monetary rewards tied to specific creative goals led to greater failures. Koch Industries, one of the world’s largest private companies, uses mastery, autonomy and purpose explicitly to motivate employees (Koch 2007).


Teams whose members receive individual, egocentric (“hero”) goals perform worse than teams whose members receive goals that encourage collaboration (Kleingeld et al. 2011).

Work satisfaction does not produce better performance, instead the cause is reversed: rewarding better performance produces work satisfaction. “High goals lead to high performance, which in turn leads to rewards, such as recognition and promotion. Rewards result in high satisfaction as well as high self-efficacy regarding perceived ability to meet future challenges through the setting of even higher goals.” (Locke et al. 2002)

Competing and Conflicting Goals

Goals often compete for limited effort, resources, attention, and self-control. Acts of self-control include making decisions, controlling impulses, and managing interpersonal conflict. All acts of self-control appear to draw on one resource, called “ego,” which is depleted as it is used (Baumeister 2018). We have the most ego in the morning after waking. It declines over the morning, gets replenished by elevated blood glucose levels (such as eating lunch), then declines until replenished by sleep. Thus, in the morning and immediately after lunch we most responsibly allocate resources to conflicting goals, and make better decisions generally.

Ego capacity seems to increase after exercising self-control over time: people who must frequently exert self-control efforts seem to be able to pursue more concurrent goals than peers.

Goal misalignment occurs when the motivation for a goal conflicts directly with motivations for another. When personal goals conflict with a group’s goals, group performance suffers; conversely, when they align, group performance improves (Seijts and Latham 2000). Misalignment can occur subtly: executives and key employees are often bonused proportionally to increased stock-price through stock options, for example. However, stock option holders have little downside in comparison to the company and its shareholders, so they are motivated to “shoot for the moon,” and take on excessive risk. Similar misalignment occurs when employees have individual “hero” bonuses, which can cause them to sacrifice team cohesion, collaboration and education (Cavallo & Fitzsimons 2012).

… therefore, establish a driving purpose

Well-crafted goals that contribute to a single driving purpose improve outcomes by

  • Directing our attention toward relevant activities and away from distractions,
  • Energizing us to perform, especially if the goals are challenging,
  • Increasing our persistence, particularly if we are given control over the time and effort we spend, and
  • Inspiring us to exploit related knowledge and skills, to strategize, to plan, and to master new skills (Locke et al. 2002).

Align organizational, departmental, team, user, and personal goals, to the extent possible, to a single long-term purpose. This reduces the likelihood of conflicting goals, produces more stability, and leads to greater focus.

Limit the number of competing goals people must juggle, to avoid ego-depletion. This leaves a greater capacity for decisions and self-control required to achieve the most important goals.

Create challenging goals to achieve high performance. Set goals at the limit of the capabilities of an individual or team, but not beyond. Since individual and team capabilities improve with learning, regular performance measurement and assessment will help set goal difficulty responsibly.

Conscientiously provide positive feedback to sustain motivation, self-confidence and collaboration. When a goal is not achieved, emphasize the progress that was made toward the goal, the new skills learned, and the new approaches tried. Avoid framing missed goals as shortfalls.

Motivate goals with a higher purpose to gain commitment, achieve higher performance, motivate creative approaches, and sustain effort. If possible, involve contributors in setting goals, to create a shared understanding, to promote thoughtful strategic planning, and to align their interests with other contributors and the team.

Emphasize mastery over performance, which may mean reframing a performance goal as a mastery goal. If fear or other factors drive people to craft avoidance (e.g., “avoid losing market share”) goals, take the time to reframe these as approach goals (e.g., “increase market share”). Provide time for contributors to establish skills to meet the mastery goal and its underlying performance goal.

Well-crafted goals and self-efficacy (self-confidence in the specific goal) drive performance so strongly that they appear to overwhelm other personality traits in performance results. With challenging, achievable goals, many personality traits—including mastery goal orientation, achievement orientation, “gung-ho attitude,” and others—lose their correlation with performance (Seijts and Latham 2000).


User Stories

User stories are a popular way to represent agile software requirements in agile development (Cohn 2004). User stories have this form:

As a <role>,
I want <goal>,
so I <benefit>

Four-part user stories add the benefit to the sponsor of the work (such as the employer):

and so <sponsor-goal>

In user stories, the items in <> are replaced with specific items. Here is an example, from the fictitious Gotham Gazette:

As a Gotham City citizen,
I want to find today's articles ordered by my personal interests,
so I waste less time navigating,
and so Gotham Gazette retains more visitors

User stories seem to strongly improve productivity and quality (Lucassen 2016). 61% vs 8% of surveyed software practitioners felt they improved vs degraded productivity. 68% vs 9% felt they improved vs degraded software quality.

User stories are inherently specific and motivated. User stories contain traditional requirements in <goal>. They go beyond that by specifying the beneficiaries in <role> and motivating the work in <benefit>.

Four-part user stories are inherently aligned. <sponsor-goal> aligns the story with the interests of the sponsor and other requirements from the same sponsor. In the example above, the Gotham Gazette, which is paying for this development, wants to retain more visitors.

User stories promote learning. The explicit user <benefit> allows us to test the effect of the requirement on the user <role> and the sponsor. For example, do Gotham City citizens waste less time navigating when the article order is personalized? Does the Gotham Gazette retain more visitors? User stories allow us to create tests that assess our hypotheses and refine our understanding of a user’s needs. These open-ended questions lead us to learn more about the user and the sponsor, helping us master the art of satisfying them.

User stories, in practice, are typically difficult but attainable. Under Scrum, user stories are initially created by a Product Owner, who wants to create more value, and estimated by Development Team members, who want to limit effort. Working together, they typically adjust the user story to exploit the Pareto rule, producing 80% of the value with 20% of the effort. Since Scrum Teams are long-lasting, they learn what is attainable, and gradually user stories become challenging-but-attainable, which has been shown to drive better outcomes.

Because user stories are inherently specific, motivated and aligned, because they promote learning, and because they are typically difficult but attainable, they are an example of this pattern.

Hoshin Kanri

Hoshin Kanri is the name Toyota gave to its approach to organizational goal setting. From Japanese, Hoshin roughly means “setting a direction,” and Kanri roughly means “management.”

Through a series of seven steps executives set long and short term strategic goals, and then obtain feedback and set lower-level goals aligned with the organization’s.

  1. Establish Organizational Vision
    Executives examine the existing organization, its structure, policies and plans to formulate an overall vision of what it is doing today.
  2. Develop Breakthrough Strategic Objectives
    Considering existing customers and products along with potential customers and products, establish new 3-5 year strategic objectives that will stretch, but not break, the organization
  3. Develop Annual Objectives
    Given the breakthrough objectives, establish one-year objectives that bring the organization closer to the strategic
  4. Deploy Annual Objectives
    Annual objectives in Hoshin Kanri are deployed top-down. What are the organization’s top-level annual objectives? How will progress be measured (see Measure Economic Progress) at that level? Moving down to departments, teams and individuals, establish targets and metrics that support the top-level objectives.
  5. Implement Annual Objectives
    Establish incremental improvements and actions needed to approach the target objectives. Agile and lean techniques apply directly to this activity, so these objectives may be broken down into Backlog Items that can be completed in less than a month.
  6. Monthly Review
    Team members, managers, and executives meet to compare the goals with measured outcomes, and institute corrective action.
  7. Annual Review
    Executives, managers, and team members meet to compare annual objectives with results.

Hoshin Kanri starts with a flexible strategic organizational vision, then consciously establishes specific, aligned, difficult, but attainable goals relevant to every level: organization, department, team and individual. These goals are inherently motivated, because they align with organizational vision. Hoshin Kanri does not necessarily promote mastery goals, so participants may be less driven to persist in challenging situations. In this last way, Hoshin Kanri doesn’t completely conform to this pattern.


George T. Duran wrote a paper in 1981 advocating the SMART acronym to motivate better goals from managers (Duran 1981). It has become prevalent in managerial materials, as a guide for specifying goals.

SpecificTarget a specific area for improvement
MeasurableQuantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress
AssignableSpecify who will do it
RealisticState what results can realistically be achieved
Time-relatedSpecify when the result(s) can be achieved

SMART as the minimum requirements for something to be called a goal at all—it is “barely passing.” Later adaptations have substituted “attainable” for the original “assignable.” This change makes SMART goals more motivating. But as this pattern reveals, if you want high-performance from your organization, you must do more than SMART, in either form.

Resulting Context

By establishing and promulgating a Driving Purpose, organizations, teams and individuals can collaborate better, and more rapidly produce usable work.

This pattern is the first in a series of six Agile Base Patterns in the Agile Canon Pattern Language. These patterns underlie (or perhaps should underlie) all agile frameworks. Subscribe to be notified when new posts go live.


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Gail Ferreira reviewed with valuable insights on Hoshin Kanri. Ron Lichty provided many great suggestions. Lisa Englebart provide help with structure. Eve Rubell suggested changes to SMART goals.


Daniel Rex Greening


This pattern can be audited by assessing implementation of the six main attributes of high-performance goals: Aligned, Non-conflicting, Challenging, Rewarding, Motivated, and Mastery-developing. The pattern applies at any level, from organization to individual.

Organization Is the organization’s purpose well-known and agreed by all employees? Are all employees engaged in goals that help achieve the company’s purpose? Are the goals and purpose challenging, but achievable with effort? Has the company historically moved toward better fulfillment of its Driving Purpose, and if not, has it instituted corrective action? Do organization leaders provide regular positive feedback, using agreed-on metrics for success? Does the organization’s goals and purpose explicitly include learning and mastery?

Team Can all team members articulate the team goals and purpose without confusion? Can team members explain how their activities correspond to the purpose? Are team members challenged by the goals, but finding them possible to complete? Do managers and others provide positive feedback when team members make progress? Can team members explain why their activities are being done, with respect to the Driving Purpose? Are team members gaining mastery over the concepts articulated in the goals, and do the goals explicitly call out learning and mastery as goals in themselves?

Individual Can the individual articulate a driving purpose, a set of supporting goals, and are those goals non-conflicting? Are they working toward alignment, and involving family members and friends in helping to achieve their goals? Are the goals challenging, but likely to be achieved with effort? Does the individual speak positively about their progress toward their goals? Are the goals written in favor of  learning and mastery?