Why Agile Teams Should Avoid Setting Narrow Project Goals

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It’s common that teams usually realize their overall project goals; however, they often overlook the benefits that were unclear at the time of setting those goals. In his Harvard Business Review blog post titled "Consider Not Setting Goals in 2013," author Peter Bergman writes "The upside of goal setting has been exaggerated and the downside, the systematic harm caused by goal setting, has been disregarded."

Bergman refers to a research paper that says that the negatives of goal setting include "a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation." Essentially, Bergman says that goal setting can have an unpredictable and adverse impact.

Likewise, agile requires that teams set narrow goals for each iteration. During the review meeting at the end of the iteration, the product owner decides the degree to which the team satisfied the goal. Though the team establishes the goal, the goal itself is highly influenced by the product owner.

In many cases, I have seen management not appreciate the iteration deliverable because it represents a narrowly achieved goal rather than a meaningful business deliverable that shows business value. That observation coincides with what Bergman described as the side effect of goal setting.

Instead of having specific goals, Bergman introduces the idea of the area of focus, which acts as a pathway to discover business value. In line with what Bergman suggests, I have observed that teams can become stressed because they cannot concentrate on a certain area of focus; they are too busy switching from one narrow goal to another.

In my view, agile product development can benefit when the team uses an area of focus instead of setting a narrow goal. Johanna Rothman, in her blog post titled “Timebox or Kanban: A False Dichotomy," described that the objective of agile implementation is to limit work-in-progress. For me, the work-in-progress is the area of focus for the team, as stated in this TechWell story titled “Why Limiting Work-in-Process Is Important.”

To summarize, agile teams should change their mindsets to establish an area of focus instead of setting a narrow goal. This change can promote a team's self-direction, which generates the motivation to produce unforeseen outcomes. As Bergman described, we must avoid the negative effect of setting narrow goals.

I appreciate your sharing your experience with setting narrow goals for agile teams.

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Sameh Zeid

Sameh Zeid currently implements agile and lean in IT and software development. He believes that projects can be more successful if they employ the ideas of agile, lean, and gamification. For more than twenty-five years, Sameh has participated in different roles in myriad projects for various industries around the world. He's learned that software practitioners are passionate to innovate, and it's up to management to not demotivate them. Sameh blogs at koo-doy.com.