The Problem of Top-Down Goals

There’s a problem I have with suggestions for goals and purpose in standard management literature. Most writers and consultants assume that it’s a top-down exercise, where the management team defines the direction, and the rest of the business has to be “aligned”. Only some seem to understand that reality is in fact a little more complex.

There is a dominant discourse in which it is assumed, without much questioning, that small groups of powerful executives are able to choose the ‘direction’ their organization will move in, realize a ‘vision’ for it, create the conditions in which its members will be innovative and entrepreneurial, and select the ‘structures’ and ‘conditions’ which will enable them to be in control and so ensure success.

– Ralph Stacey, Complexity and Organizational Reality 

My purpose as a writer does not simply disappear when I’m part of a community of trainers who are building a business focused on management courses. I still need to write, while I’m organizing courses with others. Likewise, the purpose of an organization does not simply overrule the purpose of a team, or the purpose of an individual. The complex interweaving of collaboration and competition that we see happening horizontally between stakeholders is also happening vertically between different levels of abstraction. The purpose of an individual both aligns and conflicts with the purpose of the team, while the purpose of the team aligns and conflicts with the next higher levels of the organization. The alignment enables us to exchange value, while the conflict helps us to be creative and innovative. Complex systems survive because both happen at the same time. Alignment and conflict go hand in hand, both up and down.

Therefore, I strongly suggest that organizational layers are aware of each other’s purposes. Employees should subscribe to the purpose of the organization, while the organization must recognize the needs of employees. Teams will be in alignment and conflict with the goal of the department, while the department has to allow (and even invite) the emergence of purposes of teams.

Work Expo cover miniThis text is part of Work Expo, a Management 3.0 Workout article. Read more here.


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  • Lucian

    True, but I do not believe that there are organizational levels that are blind, and do not see their purpose. Once a organizational level forgets what its purpose is, setting goals will be their first problem, and not the only one.
    Even when each level makes effort in the same direction, there will be differences, and problems aligning them all. These small differences I believe are the most important things one should be aware of, and you underlined this ..
    Have you met organizations that had levels unaware of their purpose ?

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Plenty. Ask any team what their purpose is, and most won’t be able to clearly tell you. Same with many departments or organizations, by the way.

  • paul bowler

    This sounds quite similar to the Adair model which is focussed more around the needs of a team, the work needing to be done and the individual.
    I can see that it is different but am trying to understand ‘purpose’ and the context in relation to this article. It seems that you are using ‘needs’ and ‘purpose’ interchangeably?? but I don’t feel that you intend to do that which is potentially where I need some further Clarity.

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