Goal decomposition

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.


I’ve mentioned several times the concept of creating subgoals and how large goals generate a great many smaller goals. This process is known as goal decomposition. Goal decomposition is critical if we’re going to accomplish anything large or significant: a black belt in a martial art, a college degree, shipping a product, building an innovative organization, or implementing successful organizational change, are all large goals that must be broken down into pieces in order to have any reasonable chances of success.

When breaking goals down, it helps considerably to start at the end and work backward to the starting point, rather than work forward from the starting point to where you want to go. Working backward, a technique known as reverse goal chaining, does two things:

First, working backward creates implicit agreement for each step. As you define a step, it’s clear how that step moves you forward; after all, you just stepped backward to define the step! If you can’t see how to move forward from a given step, that alerts you that you’re taking too big a step. You can address that issue immediately, or at least put in a goal that when you get to point X you need to evaluate how to move to point Y. Because you are working backward, the logical progression is easier to see and there is less debate about whether that step will get you where you want to go. Instead, the implicit agreement that you’re building makes it easier to generate overall agreement to the entire goal chain; this is extremely valuable when you need to convince your team to buy in to the goals! People are more likely to listen with an open mind instead of arguing the validity of each step in the process.

Second, reverse goal chaining is a very elegant way to transform your goals into a well thought-out strategy for accomplishing those goals. Strategy is, in a very real sense, the art of looking to your end point and then reasoning backward. As you work your way backward, insetad of fighting over the validity of the step, you can instead consider how each step influences or changes the world around you and how those affected by your actions might respond. In what way might a competitor react to your actions? How can you anticipate and prevent that? A chess master builds his strategy often at an almost unconscious level, but they do work backward. They are then playing toward various board positions that they know will move them to victory. Intervening board positions are the subgoals along the way to the final board position. At the same time, the other player is seeing and responding to each move, potentially forcing the strategy to evolve and adjust. Fencers do the same thing, leading their opponents into patterns of moves so that the opponent becomes predictable. Smart businesses try to force their competitors into untenable positions as well.

As you work your goals backward, you also need to address the question of close and distant deadlines. Technically speaking, we are looking at Proximal Goals and Distal Goals.

Proximal goals are the goals that are right in front of us. Those are the goals we are doing today.

Distal goals are further off in time. Those are the goals we are working toward tomorrow.

Proximal goals build upon one another to bring us to our more distal goals. At any given moment, our proximal goals tend to be the most relevant since, after all, they have the most immediate deadlines. Sometimes, though, a proximal goal is just not that interesting or personally relevant by itself. In that case, our distal goals help remind us of the importance of those proximal goals: the proximal goal of practicing falling feeds the more distal goal of learning to throw, which feeds the goal of passing a belt test, which feeds the goal of learning the next set of techniques toward the ultimate goal of a black belt. Even a student who doesn’t much care to practice falls will still do so if they value that end point sufficiently. Because the path to the end point is broken down and visible, it’s easier to imagine achieving it.

When a business tells me that their employees have no sense of urgency, one of the first things I look at is how they’ve broken down their goals: are milestones all big and distant? Quite frequently, the problem is that the goals, and rewards, are all distal and there are no proximal goals to get people started.


Balzac combines stories of jujitsu, wheat, gorillas, and the Lord of the Rings with very practical advice and hands-on exercises aimed at anyone who cares about management, leadership, and culture.

Todd Raphael
ERE Media


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