Your Software Project Has No Goal

Human beings, organizations and software projects share one important thing: they have no intrinsic goals. The goal of something that emerges from interacting parts is not determined by the goals of those parts. (However, extrinsic goals are an entirely different matter…)

What is your goal in life?
Have you ever thought about your goal as an individual human being? Is it your goal to find happiness? Is it your goal to be rich and famous? Is it your goal to build the world's biggest collection of harmonicas? My goal is to rule the world. What's yours? Well, whatever your answer, it is probably not to reproduce as much as possible. (Though I'm sure that some readers may want to perform the act of reproduction as often as possible, without actually reproducing.)

In The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins described that it is the "goal" of our genes to be copied around. Our "selfish" genes have programmed us to act as vehicles for gene-transmission. But does that mean that for us, as human beings, reproduction is our goal? Of course not. Humanity is an emergent property of the human gene pool. We may thank our genes for creating us, but now that we're here we prefer to draw our own plans. And that distinction is very important…

The goal of something that emerges from interacting parts is not determined by the goals of those parts.

  • The goal of a beehive is not determined by the goals of the bees.
  • The goal of a city is not determined by the goals of its residents.
  • The goal of a brain is not determined by the goals of its neurons.

Note that complex systems can have intrinsic goals. For example: maybe there are genes that are not selfish. But unless they are taken along for a ride by other (selfish) genes, they will be wiped out quite rapidly by the selfish ones. Therefore, reproduction can be considered an intrinsic goal of genes. But: this is an emergent goal. It is not determined by the goals of the molecules that make up those genes.

What is the purpose of a rock?
A recent article in New Scientist explained that the human mind has an "overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none" …

Experiments on young children reveal this default state of the mind. Children as young as three readily attribute design and purpose to inanimate objects. When Deborah Kelemen of the University of Arizona in Tucson asked 7 and 8-year-old children questions about inanimate objects and animals, she found that most believed they were created for a specific purpose. Pointy rocks are there for animals to scratch themselves on. Birds exist "to make nice music", while rivers exist so boats have something to float on.

It appears that the human brain is wired to find purpose in everything. We attribute goals, cause and effect to all things around us, even when there's no reason to. The New Scientist article explains it like this:

You see bushes rustle, you assume there's somebody or something there […] This over-attribution of cause and effect probably evolved for survival. If there are predators around, it is no good spotting them 9 times out of 10. Running away when you don't have to is a small price to pay for avoiding danger when the threat is real.

We have trouble accepting that things can exist or happen for no purpose. Sadly, this was quite evident three weeks ago when a plane crashed near Amsterdam. Almost immediately after the crash an investigation was started to find our who was responsible for it. Apparently, people don't want to start with the assumption that accidents can happen for no reason.


What is the goal of an organization?
At the start of the last century, Taylorism (or "scientific" management) introduced a form of machine-thinking to organizational management. The organization was seen as some sort of machine, and it could be managed like one. And just like the owners of a machine can give purpose to it, the owners of a company could give purpose to their company.

In 1970, Milton Friedman, one of the most celebrated economists of the 20th century, wrote a famous article called The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits. He denied that companies have non-financial social responsibilities. In the 80's this view was implemented through shareholder value, the idea that the goal of a business is to enrich its shareholders. This concept quickly found its way into many company mission statements. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, has always been regarded as the father of the shareholder value movement. But the economic crisis proved that the shareholder value idea has its faults. And Welch recently condemned shareholder value as a "dumb idea".

The major problem I see here is that these great economists and businessmen have been thinking like Deborah Kelemen's 7-year-old children. They were seeing purpose where there was none. An organization is an emergent phenomenon. It is the result of the interaction between shareholders, managers, employees, customers, and suppliers. They all have their own goals, but none of the stakeholders can claim that his goals are also those of the emergent organization. Shareholders are not the owners of the emergent properties of an organization. They are owners of the assets in the organization. They cannot own people and their relationships. Managers and employees have different goals, and so do customers and suppliers.

An organization is a social structure of various stakeholders, and they all want to satisfy their own goals through collaboration.

In The Living Company, Arie de Geus described how companies are better described as living systems. They consist of many (living) interacting parts, and companies exhibit emergent behavior that cannot be reduced to the behavior of the individual stakeholders. So allow me to repeat here:

The goal of something that emerges from interacting parts is not determined by the goals of those parts.

Milton Friedman was right when he thought that the responsibility of businessmen is to make money. But complexity theory did not exist when Friedman wrote his famous article. In his time, companies were still mostly seen as machines. He probably didn't know about emergence. Research into emergence started in the 80's. Now it seems Friedman was wrong to elevate the goal of one stakeholder to the entire emergent system. However, it would be fair to point out that people who claim that businesses do have non-financial goals are also wrong. For the very same reason. They are assigning purpose where there is none.

What is the goal of a software project?
On Twitter I asked people what their thoughts were about the goal of software projects. These were some of the answers I got:

innovation, happy customers, working software, on-budget and on-time, great software, repeat customers, delighted users, happy developers, making money, more efficient users, solving business problems, adding business value, flexible process and product changes, cost savings, higher profits, automation, knowledge sharing, learning experiences, long term commercial success, creating something new…

Of course, it was just a trick question. The answer was already in my mind. I just wanted to see if people came to similar conclusions. (And some of them did!)

Software projects have no (intrinsic) goals. A software project is a social structure of stakeholders. They all have their own goals. Neither customers nor team members can transpose their goals to the goal of the emergent software project.

I took care to emphasize the word intrinsic several times. That's because I do think it is important to come up with extrinsic goals for your software projects. But that's a story for another night.

Sleep well…

(pictures by a2gemma and Darcy McCarty)

Twitter TwitterRss SubscribeEmail NewsletterDelicious Bookmarks

Latest, greatest and favoritest posts:
Communication = Information * Relationships
I Don't Feel Like Writing, Yet I Write
That’s Why We Need Managers! (But Only a Few)

  • Top 100 Blogs for Developers (Q1 2009)
  • What Is the Mission of Your Project?
Related Posts
free book
“How to Change the World”
  • Michail

    I agree with you , mostly. However every emergent complex system has an intrinsic “goal”. For example, on of the intrinsic goals of the ant hill is to gather as much food as possible using the least amount of resource. This goal is not stated but an authority but becomes an evolutionary property of the ant swarm. So where am I going…. I guess the intrinsic goal of the project is to be funded :).

  • Xiaoming

    I also blog a similar topic one year ago. I think that you might be interested.

  • Joson

    Regarding the paragraph that started with the following sentence – I got couple of questions/suggestions
    “We have trouble accepting that things can exist or happen for no purpose.”
    1. It could be that we do not understand the purpose for whatever reason.
    2. When an accident happen there could be several things that led into that particular event. If we do not try to find what could cause that event – how can we fix and prevent the problem from occuring or reduce the frequency of future occurances
    3. Rest of the article , I guess was kind of explaining the “fallacy of composition” ( Is that a correct observation?.
    Thanks very much and keep writing.
    With Respect

  • Dhananjay Nene

    I wonder if it makes sense to classify the problem domain into Subjects (of our attention) and their Relationships (the reason or random events through which they bond together). I can be a subject (human) or a composition (relationship) of all my cells (subjects)
    Such relationships can be intentional. eg. small fish swimming together to look like a big fish or random / apparently uncontrolled eg. the cells in a body.
    I would offer a different opinion. To the extent the relationships are unplanned / uncontrolled, the goals themselves are emergent. But in the situations that the relationships are at least substantially planned and managed – the goals are very tangible and its the goals which lead to the relationships. To that extent a software project has a goal which led to the relationships being formed. Where I would agree with you is that the goals of the software project are not a result of the goals of the people – on the contrary the goals of the project cause and are linked to the goals of the relationships between the people. But its not an emergent goal – its the goal which led the team to be formed in the first place.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    @Joson: Thanks for pointing that out, I didn’t know that fallacy.
    And about the plane crash accident: In fact, there were *two* investigations started after the crash. The first was by a national disaster board, who look for the root cause of problems, and only seek to find the truth. The second was by the police/justice department, who were looking for someone to blame.
    I was of course referring to the latter. They didn’t even wait for the first investigation to come with answers.
    But this was all a bit too much information for the blog post.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Thanks, that sure looks interesting!

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Good thinking, thanks for that suggestion!

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Thanks for these additions! You guys are smarter than me. 🙂

  • Richard Cordova

    Hi Jurgen,
    Thanks for the blog, just came across it and look forward to reading it in more depth.
    Ascribing goals and motivations to abstract enties allow us to predict and anticipate outcomes. I would caution against throwing away such a useful tool. Consider the pointy rock example as it would apply to a ‘caveman’: pointy rock + animal scratching = invention of the spear = dinner = successful caveman.
    PS Ruling the world is my goal too! See you at the top.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    @Richard: Of course, but that is an *extrinsic* goal. I finished my post saying that those can be important. So we agree. 🙂

  • Craig

    Jeff did a survey and found there is no correlation between successful projects an having goals.
    (He explores a few other pm fallacies as well.)
    Check it out

  • Jurgen Appelo

    @Craig: Interesting. Though I would be interested to know *how* the projects were managed. Just writing down a goal, and not using it to steer a project, would indeed be the same as not having a goal at all.

  • Matthew

    Every project has a goal. Every activity has a goal. Even if the goal is “Find out what happens if I do this” or “Find out if it’s possible to do that”.
    The goal of the current software project I have going is “Write some software to control my machine”. The programmers involved have the goal of “getting paid at the end of the month and keeping my job”. If they want to get paid and keep their jobs they have to deliver the overall project goal.
    If that wasn’t the goal I could end up with a perfectly function advanced version of Tetris that is no use to me at all.
    Also you state that “Apparently, people don’t want to start with the assumption that accidents can happen for no reason.” Well, that’s becuase there is a reason for *everything* that happens. You’re confusing reason with intent. There is a reason that the plane crashed in Amsterdam. Of course they want to find out why it happened – so they can stop the same set of circumstances causing it to happen again.
    My friend, you’re talking rubbish.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    “Every project has a goal. Every activity has a goal.”
    You should not compare a project with a personal activity. Sure an activity has a goal. It’s *you* who’s doing the activity, and you have a goal. But a project is an emergent property. It is not you who determines the goal of the project on behalf of others, and it is also not the sum of your activities.
    “The goal of the current software project I have going is Write some software to control my machine”.
    That is *not* an *intrinsic* goal. It is an *extrinsic* goal. Because *you* determined the goal, the project did not do so itself. Extrinsic goals are fine. See my other blog post: What is the Mission of Your Project?

  • Matthew

    A project is not an emergent property. It is an assembled group of activities planned to meet a stated goal.
    If a project has no goal then it is not a project.
    Also a proect never defines it’s own goal, how can it? It has no sentience. Your goals may adapt as a result of the progress of the project but that is not the same thing.

  • Trevor Roberts

    Hi Jurgen,
    I have to disagree with your basic argument. You are claiming that a project or an organisation is something that emerges from interacting parts, an emergent phenomenon. But an organisation or a project isn’t an emergent phenomenon – they are created, and created with a purpose, a goal.
    To be an emergent phenomenon, the participants that make it up would have to not be aiming to create that phenomenon – so a flock, for example, isn’t made up of birds trying to create one. But projects are deliberately created. They don’t start because a bunch of programmers was sitting around with time on their hands. Instead, there is a deliberate, external act of creation.
    I’ve gone into more detail on this in my response to your post from last Friday, Your Project Does Have A Goal.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    I simply disagree there. A project is not just a construction from different parts. A software project is a complex system, not a constructed system. Complex systems emerge from their parts. Like a beehive emerges from its bees.
    You continue confusing the project’s goal with your own goal (as a stakeholder). I believe that is a conceptual error. Potentially a troublesome one, because you might disregard the goals of other stakeholders.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Sorry, but I believe your reasoning is flawed.
    True, an organization is initiated because one stakeholder starts with a goal. But apparently he cannot achieve that goal by himself. So he needs to build *trade* relationships with other people, who have other goals. Those other people are employees, suppliers and customers.
    All those parties have their own goals. And they all think they benefit from trading with each other. Some stakeholders invest money (customers), other stakeholders (employees) invest time.
    The result is a very complex web of relationships and dependencies, the result of which is much, much more than what the first stakeholder started out with. A lot of those relationships have absolutely *nothing* to do with the goal of the first stakeholder.
    Note: I have even seen *intimate* relationships being built between some stakeholders (between employees, and between employees and customers). If you think those relationships, and all other emergent properties of the organization, are all part of the goal and design of the original stakeholder, then I’m afraid you’re completely out of touch with reality.
    The original stakeholder has a goal. But the organization is NOT owned by the stakeholder. Only its ASSETS are owned by the first stakeholder. Therefore only the dead assets of an organization may have the same goal. But the other (living) emergent properties are beyond his reach.
    May I suggest that you read The Living Company, by Arie de Geus? A very interesting and famous book that also suggests that a company is a living system, something that emerges from its parts.

  • Jean Tabaka

    All of this brings to mind the recent discussion of “churn” on the LEI (Lean Enterprise Institute) Yahoo! group. Without some sense of vision or goal, held strongly by the product engineer, a product’s projects can fall into churn. Churn is activity that doesn’t contribute to ultimate value. It is activity that is waste, pure and simple. Jurgen, I like all of what you say. But here is the thing. A PRODUCT must have a vision, a goal. That gives everyone associated with it (e.g. its projects) something to disagree with and be highly suspect of :- )It invites continuous inspection and improvement, and THAT is where the emergence occurs. If projects have no high-level goal that can be associated with the product goal, then that is good ol’ 20th century hard-wired thinking hard at work. How old ARE you???? :- )

  • Matthew

    The conceptual error seems to be your own. You seem to be thinking that a business will put a team together for no apparent reason. This is a fundamental flaw in your arguement. The goal of any business is to make money, and not having a purpose for a role is going to detract from the bottom line. Sure there are a few companies that make so much money that they can afford to employ people to play around to see what cool things they can produce, but that is very rare.
    The goal of a project is decided by whoever pays the bills. I’m paying the bills, therefore the goal of the project is the same as my goal. The goals of the individuals involved in the project are irrelevant. They are only stakeholders in that they wish to be paid for their work. If they want to be paid for their work then they have to deliver the goal. Simple.

  • Matthew

    I think your reasoning is flawed here:
    “All those parties have their own goals. And they all think they benefit from trading with each other. Some stakeholders invest money (customers), other stakeholders (employees) invest time.”
    Customers only put money in when the product is complete. They only put their money in if they think that the product is what they want. Therefore the goal of the project is “provide what the customer wants”.
    Employees are not stakeholders. They get paid for their time and can walk away without an loss, the same as if their job was flipping burgers in McDonalds. If they want to keep their jobs they need to create products that the customer wishes to purchase, therefore their goal should be “deliver the project”. The goal of the employees is taken from the goal of the project, not the other way around.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    “The goal of any business is to make money”
    The goal of the *shareholders* is to make money.
    I will not keep reiterating each of my arguments. It’s fine if we disagree. See my lengthy reply to Trevor Roberts.
    Thanks for discussing this. It keeps me sharp.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    I wrote very, very, VERY clearly that I was talking about *intrinsic* goals. Goals that are part of the emergent system itself.
    You are talking about *extrinsic* goals: giving direction to an emergent system, as a leader or as a commander.
    My other post is about that:
    What is the mission of your project?
    BTW, I am 40 years old.

  • MTan

    I think I agree that non-sentient entities have no intrinsic goals (rocks, rustling bushes, software projects). If so, how do genes and molecules have emergent intrinsic goals?
    How do you distinguish this from another case of misplaced goal-attribution to non-planned phenomenon?

  • MTan

    As an aside, you also misrepresent Jack Welch as having “recently condemned shareholder value as a ‘dumb idea'”.
    If you read his response in BusinessWeek (see ) he clearly delineates between strategy and outcome, and says that shareholder value is a natural outcome of good strategy.
    I’m not sure how this fits into your intrinsic/extrinsic goals argument, but it seems that Welch refers less to “purpose” and more to strategy (extrinsic goals?) and outcome.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    @MTan: Thanks for the feedback. Those are good points, and I will have to think about that for a while. I may get back to this later, though I’m a bit busy right now preparing for a presentation.

  • harry

    Thanks Jurgen, this is very impressive article on goals.
    You may want to check out, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals and todo lists, and supports time tracking too. It’s clear, focused, easy to navigate, worth a try.

How to Change the World - free Workout - free