Setting goals is important. Changing them is important, too

Setting clear goals or objectives is often recommended for managing (design) projects, and there are quite a few resources that should help you doing it, from designerly ones to more managerial .

It is great that goal setting gets coverage in management and design advice. But a closely related topic is neglected: Changing goals.

Goal changes happen, but often we are unequipped to deal with them. There are not many narratives that encourage goal changes. On the contrary: People we look up to cling to their goals. They overcome hurdles. They have an idea and make it work.

But changing objectives is as essential to design and innovation as setting objectives.

Empirical studies of designers show that an assumed problem and its proposed solution are intertwined; a new design will also cause a new perspective on the problem and thus an adjustment of how the problem is framed 1.

This reframing seems to be essential for the quality of design solutions. Valkenburg and Dorst compared two design teams and showed how the more successful repeatedly developed a new understanding of the design task 2.

Approaches which strongly structure a design process and try to pursue an initially set, fixed goal until implementation (like some interpretations of »Design Thinking«) thus seem to be ill suited for the thinking and acting in design 3.

These are the implications for design. However, the problem of changing goals is also present in management, particularly if concerned with innovation.

In his Book »Technology and Change«, Donald Schön describes that innovation is often framed similar to production 4 [p. 8] : An innovation is lineary worked towards and made. But this is a myth; stories are created which suggest that people followed their goals all along 5, but those stories only work in retrospect.

Actually, innovation is partly a nonrational process 4 [p. 11] in which teams opportunistically react to unexpected 6 findings: The outcome is uncertain, the way towards it is uncertain as well.

But acting as if innovation can be planned can be nevertheless useful; it »provides direction… and a stimulus for action«4 [p. 41].

From this perspective, objectives and plans are useful tools: They can guide the process and they can help teams to work together. However, they need to be adaptable, and adaptation is not a failure, but an essential part of innovating.

Comment (added 2017-09-01): Brooks talks about a similar topic in The design of the design (ISBN 978-0201362985), Ch.9:Better Wrong than Vague: »An articulated guess beats an unspoken assumption.«, »wrong explicit assumptions are much better than vague ones. Wrong ones will perhaps be questioned; vague ones won’t.«

Comment (added 2018-01-08): “What are Plans for” gives two types of plans: Plans as programs and plans as communication. Plans as program means that plans are seen as fixed, once they are made and started to executed, they are followed: “Plans are abstract mathematical entities”. In Plans as communication plans are not executed, they are used. The “communication” here means that plans are used to get information useful in the situation as the answer you get when asking “Can you tell me where I can find the train station”. Agre, Philip E., and David Chapman. 1990. “What Are Plans For?” Robotics and Autonomous Systems 6 (1–2):17–34.

  1. Dorst, Kees, and Nigel Cross. 2001. “Creativity in the Design Process: Co-Evolution of Problem–solution.” Design Studies 22 (5): 425–37. doi:10.1016/S0142-694X(01)00009-6. 

  2. Valkenburg, Rianne, and Kees Dorst. 1998. “The Reflective Practice of Design Teams.” Design Studies 19 (3): 249–71. doi:10.1016/S0142-694X(98)00011-8. 

  3. Guindon, Raymonde. 1990. “Designing the Design Process: Exploiting Opportunistic Thoughts.” Hum.-Comput. Interact. 5 (2): 305–44. 

  4. Schon, Donald A. 1967. Technology and Change. First Edition. Pergamon Press. 

  5. Weick, Karl E. 1995. Sensemaking in Organizations. SAGE. 

  6. I found it interesting in this context that Karl Popper uses the non-predictability of scientific progress as an argument against the idea that history follows predictable patterns. See the foreword of Popper, Karl. 2002. The Poverty of Historicism. 2 Rev ed. London: Routledge. This makes our university culture of grants and plans with quasi promised outcomes look like a common delusion.