Singular Goals: At What Cost to Vision?

I have been involved in two separate and very diverse cases where clear, singular goals with short-term measurements and important rewards attached have been causing systemic flaws in overall intentions. These incidents occurred in two different and historically very successful organizations. In one case, the organization has identified the issue and is taking very effective corrective action. The other organization seems unaware and longer-term negative consequences are not yet clear.

The first case is with The Hunger Project, an organization very dear to my heart for more than 30 years. THP had a five-year grant to demonstrate “scale-up” of its effective Epicenter program in Africa. Much effort was put into identifying all of the critical criteria for measuring a self-sustaining community throughout the development of the program.  When the grant came, however, singular pressure occurred across the field organization to open new Epicenters, build buildings, and declare the earlier Epicenters self-sustaining to satisfy the objectives of the grant.

Fortunately, our African leadership identified that some of the communities had not truly reached a self-sustaining basis. They dug for real data around the level of effort and time required to truly achieve a self-sustaining community. The program has now been redesigned focusing on key human accomplishment criteria, the grant has been extended, and people throughout the organization are refocused on the big picture and broader measures of success. They did an amazing job of pausing, assessing and refining to be sure that the criteria for success were appropriate and that short-term “success” did not damage the long term vision and mission. When they found they were off course, they made the necessary adjustments to insure the outcomes that really mattered.

In the second case, the issue the organization is facing is that different departments deal with short and long-term issues and consequences. Those in one department are incentivized to launch new projects quickly, while the other group will be held accountable for long-term performance of each project. As more and more projects are launched prematurely to gain the short-term incentives, doubt is building “in the field” about the effectiveness of each new project leader and the overall credibility of the firm’s work over time. To date, higher-level managers seem unaware of what is happening or are driven by singular, short-term goals that will justify current, possibly detrimental behavior for some time. This is a recipe for missing the big picture and the ultimate vision, and higher purpose of an organization. The consequences will likely gradually develop and then seemingly “suddenly appear” and it may take a lot of time, money, effort and resources to correct, (if it’s actually a correctable situation in the end).

Do you see your organization in either of these two cases?  How are you motivated and measured?  If you have not yet stepped up to address underlying systemic issues and “moved to the high ground” of strategic leadership the way The Hunger Project leadership has, what are the long run costs?  As a leader you must be the keeper of the vision and mission and you must collaborate with your organization to understand if the path you are taking is the right one.