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The Importance of Indirect Goals

One of the most immediate contributions Neuroscience makes when it comes to difficult change is in how we define goals. The very way we define goals is critical to our ability to adopt change into practice...

Goals. It's the starting point and end point of any change effort. For better or worse the way we set goals at the onset creates the focus of what we will aim to improve. That's not new. What is new is the Neuroscience-based understanding that the very way we define goals increases or decreases our chances of achieving desired outcomes.

Traditional change models help us identify future-oriented objectives. We look at the new systems, processes, structures as well as behaviors, thinking habits, and response patterns that we need to create or adopt in order to achieve a future-state desired outcome. In addition, Neuroscience reveals a set of "indirect" goals we should most definitely focus on but often ignore.

To get an intuitive sense of what I mean, let's define 3 types or layers of goals and look at them in the context of planning to climb a mountain:

First Layer: End Goals

This layer defines the desired outcome.

  • What do you want the end result to be?

  • Which mountain will you climb?

  • How far up do you plan to reach?

The first layer is our ability to define, outline, and imagine a desired point in the future and what it will look like exactly when we reach it. For example, a good example of an end goal for someone who is overwhelmed could be seeing himself making time to manage and plan, instead of being bogged down. The end goal, or desired outcome should paint a very clear picture of what that desired end state will look like in the future, and in particular, these goals should be defined in a way that allows us to assess and evaluate if the desired outcome was achieved (there are many great models for this type of goal setting like the SMART goals model which you are probably highly versed in already :)).

Second Layer: Task/Action/Behavioral goals

Once the end destination is clear, we can break down the gap between where we are and the specific destination and outline steps and actions to get from here to there. We as which:

  • Processes and structures will we need to revise?

  • New systems and processes will we need to adopt?

  • Specific steps will we need to complete?

  • New future behaviors and thinking habits will we need to practice so that we can reach that chosen peak?

A good example of such goals in the context of achieving the end goal of being less overwhelmed can be managing time more effectively, becoming more assertive, and focusing on prioritization. These goals are still very much future-oriented, focusing on what we can do more of to get to the specific destination on the mountain we identified we want to reach.

Third Layer: Unlearning Goals

And finally, we’ll need to identify which thinking habits, emotional responses and behavioral patterns we need to stop reinforcing, otherwise we won’t take the actions and steps we outlined in layer two and will hence not achieve our selected destination.

The importance of Unlearning goals comes from understanding that there are preexisting patterns already in place and that we can't simply focus on the new, without managing the "letting go" or the moving away from, those preexisting patterns.

Unlearning goals dive into ways of doing things that need to be minimized or let go of, in order to achieve the other two goal layers. These are indirect goals in the sense that they focus on what we are currently already doing, how we are used to thinking and responding, that will block us from practicing new behaviors or completing tasks. It is about how we deal with the world and the deep reasons behind why we are stuck (otherwise we would have already taken needed action and reached our goals on our own). If we continue to use the time management example, for someone to carve more time to manage and plan instead of focusing on doing all the time and being bogged down, an unlearning goal can be around having more flexible standards. If rigid standards are blocking this person from being able to take time to plan, indirect goals or Unlearning goals might focus on:

  • Removing negative, discouraging, dismissing self-beliefs.

  • Minimizing risk-avoidance or failure-avoidance behaviors.

  • Learning to say “no” because they take on so much that they don’t have time to plan.

Or a million other possible Unlearning goals, beliefs, basic assumptions about the world, emotional response patterns, thinking habits - specific to the reasons why this particular individual or team is stuck.

Not identifying this last layer of goals, especially when change does require Unlearning, will make any change effort much more difficult than necessary, with invisible undercurrents running against the main effort of moving forward.

While not using the same terminology, this clip of the Immunity to Change Model touches beautifully on the importance of Unlearning goals and their blocking force if not identified and managed (the whole thing is worth the time in my opinion, but if you only have 10 minutes I recommend watching minute 10:00 to minute 20:00).

Needless to say, the same three layers of goals are desperately needed in the context of team development and organizational changes that require people to unlearn.

Ask yourself, what does your team, your organization, or leaders around you need to unlearn in order to achieve their end goals or their task/action/behavioral goals?

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