Quite a few of the journal articles I scan in order to generate material for this blog get filed under “Well, duh!”. They usually report studies that have gone to great lengths to prove something that was blindingly obvious to anyone with common sense. To be fair, these studies can be completely valid; they are providing concrete evidence for things we assume to be true. However, they don’t really make for interesting blog posts — ‘Here’s proof of something you knew already’.
The article by Köpetz et al. (2011) could easily fall into that category. The findings are not exactly startling. Here’s the abstract:
In the presence of several objectives, goal conflict may be avoided via multifinal means, which advance all of the active goals at once. Because such means observe multiple constraints, they are fewer in number than the unconstrained means to a single goal. Five experimental studies investigated the process of choosing or generating such means for multiple goals. We found that the simultaneous activation of multiple goals restricted the set of acceptable means to ones that benefitted (or at least, did not harm) the entire set of active goals. Two moderators of this phenomenon were identified: (a) the feasibility of identifying multifinal means, which was dependent on the relations between the different active goals, and (b) the enhanced importance of the focal goal, which resulted in the inhibition of its alternatives and the consequent relaxation of multifinality constraints.
See what I mean?
If you are pursuing more than one goal, you tend to limit your actions to those things that further both goals or further one without hurting the other. No big surprise there.
So, why am I blogging about it?
Well, one reason is my love of amusing jargon. Multifinal means — actions which could lead to more than one outcome. Excellent! I couldn’t resist sharing it.
The other reason is that, although conclusions are not ground-breaking, the subject matter of the paper catalysed a reaction between various thoughts that had been bouncing around in my head. It made me ask questions about certain aspects of my practice with clients.
Excluding or integrating?
The paper begins with a concise summary of the literature on multiple goals. The “zero-sum” view assumes that trying to pursue multiple goals places more of a strain on your mental and physical resources than pursuing a single goal. Whatever motivation or energy you devote to one goal limits what you can invest in other goals. This way of thinking leads to an “exclusionary” approach. The answer is to reduce the number of concurrent goals you are pursuing — preferably to one. This means prioritising and then sacrificing or deferring some goals for the sake of others.
An “integrative” approach to multiple goals involves finding ways to maximise your progress towards all important goals without sacrificing any of those goals. This leads you to ask questions about whether there are actions that you can take that produce progress towards more than one goal — killing two birds with one stone. It also involves examining goals to see if they can be adapted and made more compatible rather than conflicting.
There’s nothing astounding here, but it did make me question my practice.
- Do I make assumptions that a single clear goal is preferable because it’s easier?
- Do I place too much emphasis on getting clients to prioritise their goals?
- What should I do when clients find it difficult to prioritise?
- Do I ask enough questions about the malleability and overlap of different goals?
Ends and means
A slightly more fundamental question that occurs to me is: Why do we always assume that goals must precede actions?
Whether you take an exclusionary or an integrative approach to goals, you are assuming that the ends have already been identified before the means can be decided upon. Does it have to be this way?
In the real world it’s not always possible to identify clear goals at the outset. Even if you do, they are likely to change as you go along. The whole “plan then implement” approach assumes that you can see into the future and that the neither the future nor you will not have changed by the time you get there.
In this changeable situation, when goals may be mutable as well as multiple, how can you decide what action to take?
The answer according to Herminia Ibarra (2002) is the “test and learn” approach. Instead of formulating goals, you craft experiments. Instead of implementing plans, you shift connections — all with the aim of constantly rewriting your life story.
- Köpetz, C., Faber, T., Fishbach, A. & Kruglanski, A. (2011). The multifinality constraints effect: How goal multiplicity narrows the means set to a focal end. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/a0022980
- Two birds — one stone: a tool to assist action planning.
- Ibarra, H. (2002). How to stay stuck in the wrong career. Harvard Business Review.
- Related posts: Non-stop action