Between Goal and Process

So-and-so is goal oriented.  So-and-so is results driven.  We have heard those statements, often as compliments.  So-and-so is detail oriented.  So-and-so focuses on processes.  We have also heard of those statements, often as criticism.  The general wisdom is that focusing on the detail and the process comes at a cost of losing sight of the goal or not getting to a goal fast enough.  Is that true?

We live in a world where goals have more value than processes. I certainly live in that world. As a child, my father always talked about goals and the importance of having them. He called them a compass. He asked me often where my compass was pointing. Normally, that meant what subject I wanted to study in university, and what job I could get out of it. At one point, my five-year-old head had six majors, from medicine to international relations. I had goals. Dad didn’t say not to have too many of them!

The education world fuels the goal-oriented mindset. The professional world then reinforces it. Tell us about your three achievements. What are your career goals? What are your aspirations? College applications ask those questions. So, do graduate school applications, job interviews, and competitive training programs.

As hiring managers, we look for goal-oriented, results-driven candidates. We hire them, give them objectives, reward them when they hit their goals and penalize them when they miss. The same apply to us from the higher up. We are motivated by goals and by achieving them.

Even when we talk about processes, we make them goal oriented. How do we improve efficiency, reduce errors, or cut costs by X, Y and Z per cent?

I buy into those goal-oriented principles. Look at my resume, read my LinkedIn profile, listen to my conversations at work. These words are quite common: strategic goals, revenue targets, expense budgets, financial projections, management by objectives, performance measures, outcomes, milestones, and benchmarks, just to give a short list. I like goals. They tell me what to do, keep me focused, and make me feel in control, stable and comfortable.

But the goal-oriented world is not my only world. I also practice yoga. Yoga is about process. It teaches us to focus on here and now and not the past or the future, to accept what is, and to let go of analysis and judgment. The vocabulary in yoga is different. In a yoga practice, we set intention, not goals. The intention is based on our own need or focus at the moment, and not on some future targets. It could be as simple as I am here to breathe. We learn to respect our own limitations. “Meet the students where they are,” we learn in teacher training. We observe and don’t judge. These concepts and words fly against what we learn and do in the goal-oriented world. Yet, yoga helps me go through with what I do, keep me focused, make me feel in control, stable and comfortable.

Initially, my professional world and my yoga world coexisted in parallel, but the two worlds have gotten closer and closer over time. I struggle with that. For example, at work, I am responsible for translating the organization’s goals into goals for my team members and holding them accountable. I am also responsible for helping my team members learn and grow as individuals. If I meet people where they are, as we say in yoga practice, am I missing my delivery and accountability to my organization’s mission? If I am goal oriented and results driven, am I breaking down my team members?

What is the right thing to do?

The Three Questions: Based on a Story by Leo Tolstoy, written and illustrated by Jon J Muth, asked similar questions. The story, adapted from The Three Questions, a short story by Leo Tolstoy, is about a boy named Nikolai. Nikolai sometimes feels uncertain about the right way to act. He thinks, “If only I could find the answers to three questions … then I would always know what to do,” and asks his friends – a heron, a monkey and a dog – three questions: “What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? And what is the right thing to do?”

One way to look at it, Nikolai is asking for the information that leaders and managers want to know all the time: timing (when), human resources (who) and action (what). How do I prioritize?

The friends’ answers sound like something that we often hear in our professional world. To the question of when, the answers cover topics like planning in advance, keeping close attention to opportunities (in this case, food), or setting us a team (or a pack, in the dog’s word) to help take actions and mitigate risks (in this case, a falling coconut).

To the question of what, the answers from the friends can be interpreted as Nikolai needs on his team a visionary (“those who are closest to heaven” with the top-down view), a problem solver (“those who know how to help the sick”), and an operational expert (“those who make rules”).

To the question of action, the answers were “flying,” “having fun” and “fighting”. We might have seen flavors of these words in our professional context. Climb high, work hard and play hard, and be competitive.

Collectively, those sound like good advice. We have heard such advice from our leaders, our bosses, our coaches, and our colleagues. We have also given similar advice to others.

Nikolai is not satisfied and travels to consult with an old turtle who lives up in the mountains. Through a series of events, Nikolai ends up helping the old turtle dig in the garden, curing a mother panda’s injured leg and saving not only the mother panda but also her baby. Nikolai does not set goals to help these animals. He is paying attention to the moment, seeing who around him needs help and doing what he can to help, which yield positive results. As the turtle summarizes, “Remember then, that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.”


For me, the message from the story puts an emphasis on process over goal. Paying attention to the moment means noticing where the needs are, where the readiness of the organization and the people is, and attending to the immediate needs. But if we focus on the process and not goal, could we have invented wheels, discovered vaccines and drugs or gone to the moon? While The Three Questions gives a point of view on the goal-versus-process question, a specific framework to think about it, and even a validation that process is important, it does not give me a complete answer. I believe in having goals and like having them, and I also respect and appreciate a process. The question becomes: where is the balance?

The easy answer is that the answer lies in the middle between goal and process. The difficult part is figuring out where the middle is. It is easier to be goal oriented at work and process oriented on a yoga mat because we give ourselves permission to play those roles in those separate worlds. But those worlds are not separated, so how do we find a balance in the intertwined world to let both views coexist? I wonder if finding that middle, or having the ability to set goals while respecting the readiness within the current state and allowing the process to move those involved to the goals, is an art that a leader has to master and be comfortable with. Is this art something one attains after years of learning and doing? Or is it a continuous reflection and practice, and while one will never fully attain it, can one be better at it? For me, doing the right thing at the right time for the right people is a constant reflection. Embracing both goal and process is a practice. And convincing others to see the good and the bad of both and to find balance can be a struggle. If there is such a place as the middle, I am not there yet, and I will be on this journey of reflection, practice and struggle for a while. Do I need to set a goal on this one?