System Archetype 5: Eroding Goals

System Dynamics & Systems Thinking
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Aniket Deolikar
Consultant, India

System Archetype 5: Eroding Goals

Description of Eroding Goals

One of the System Archetypes is "Eroding Goals". This archetype shows and explains how historical instances of poor performance influence the long-term vision. Usually, when people see themselves drifting from the goal, they take efforts to reach the desired goal. But in this archetype, it tells us that the actual goals and the perceived goals are different as people tend to remember bad news more often than the good news which leads them to think that things are worse than they actually are. So, they set lower standards of the goals and drift from the goals which were earlier desired. This is similar to the Shifting the Burden-type of archetype where the focus on short term solutions leads us to drift away from our fundamental goals.

Early Warning Symptoms of Eroding Goals

You may hear people say things like, "It's OK if our service quality decreases a little, we can afford that until the crisis is over", or "the winter season is so busy, we must postpone the execution of our plan to next month". These kind of phrases are symptoms you should be alert to indicating that problems are slowly eroding the fundamental goals by setting low standards or finding excuses and as a result you are losing opportunities to grow.

Structure of Eroding Goals

Management Principle (What to do?)

One of the best solutions to this type of structure is holding on to the Strategic Vision and not drift away from the vision. This can be done by sticking to your original intentions from the top to the middle and bottom of the organization.
This means that the top leadership must constantly focus on the vision and constantly communicate the vision to the employees. It also means that that middle managers should watch how the progress towards the goal is going. If things are not OK, then action plans must be undertaken to take it back on the right path. And also at the bottom of the organization, teams on the floor executing the daily operations must always aim to abide by the organization's vision. Positive peer pressure should create a habit to move towards the vision and not drift away from it.

Business Example of Eroding Goals

Suppose a tech company finds itself in a situation where despite they are having a great product design and are constantly improving the product, they are still losing market share. It could be they were so focused on improving the design that they never looked into production scheduling problems. A survey might reveal that the customers were dissatisfied with the late deliveries due to the problems with production scheduling and as a result were buying from competitors. But the company ignores the survey and increases the quoted delivery time to the customers to still deliver "on time".

Real Life Example of Eroding Goals

New year resolutions are very good examples of the eroding goals archetype. You set a goal of exercising 5 days a week and you do great for the first 2 weeks of the year. Bu then you begin to drift away from your goal. Maybe you only do 4 times a week. After that it becomes 3 times. After the gap between the desired goal (5 times a week) and your perception (nothing happens if I take a break today) increases, you set lower standards for yourself and still feel comfortable with them.

⇨ Feel free to add more management situations which you might have faced and what you did to tackle them...

Peter Senge, "The Fifth Discipline Appendix 2: Systems Archetypes", 1990.
William Braun, "The System Archetypes", February 2002
"Eroding Goals Archetypes", Systems and Us


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