By Fred Nickols

I have been thinking about goal clarity lately and, in this month’s column, I will share that thinking.

You do not have to look very far to note that many writers emphasize the importance of goal clarity with respect to workplace goals and objectives. Obviously, no one can perform to expectations if he or she is not clear about the goal to be achieved. But just what is goal clarity? Is it a statement so crisp and unambiguous that it requires no clarification? Is the end product of conversations between boss and subordinate? Is it a set of standards and measures for assessing goal attainment? Well, those are all worthwhile notions, but I have something else in mind.

Let’s start with the obvious: A goal reflects some result to be achieved. And here is where it gets interesting.

A result is defined by the value of some workplace variable. That variable might be financial (e.g., earnings per share or cost of goods sold). It might be operational (e.g., the error rate in a particular process or the percentage of waste). Or it might pertain to people (e.g., the retention rate in a job specialty or the span of control in a particular unit). The point being made is: At the heart of all goals is a variable, literally something that varies.

That you are out to achieve a particular result means that the current value of the variable in question does not match its intended or required value. There is a gap to close.

Chances are the gap is not going to close itself. You are going to have to do something to close it. You will have to change something. But what? Where to look and for what?

Where you look is in the structure of the situation in which your target variable may be said to be embedded.

What you are looking for are other variables that affect the one you have targeted–and you are looking specifically for those other variables that you can change as the result of direct and immediate action.  You cannot directly change the error rate in a process but you can change something else that affects error rate, perhaps the quality of the input materials or the accuracy of a given step in the process. The point is that change is typically indirect; you don’t change it, you change something else and it changes as a result. Consequently, the search is always for things you can change directly and, in turn, the effects of those changes will ripple through the structure of the situation in which your targeted variable is embedded and be felt on the targeted variable in the kinds of changes you want.

To sum up, goal clarity exists when you are clear about the following:

  1. The value of the variable you are out to change.
  2. The desired or required value of that variable.
  3. The structure in which the targeted variable is embedded.
  4. Other variables related to the targeted variable.
  5. Variables you can affect directly.
  6. The paths connecting the variables you can affect directly to the one whose value you are out to change.

If you are clear about those six factors, the odds of achieving the result you are after is as good as it gets.

The preceding discussion is reflected in the diagram below, which illustrates the six elements of goal clarity.


The diagram also indicates two necessary avenues related to achieving a goal:

  • Identification of the target variable, the value to be achieved, the surrounding structure in which the target variable is embedded, and related variables that affect the target variable
  • Identification of the related variables to which you have direct access and the paths that connect these related variables to the target variable.

With this knowledge in hand, you can be clear about the goal to be achieved and how to achieve it.  Without it, goal clarity simply does not exist.

FredNickolsAbout the Author

Fred Nickols, CPT, is a performance improvement professional and the managing partner of Distance Consulting LLC. He is a longtime member of ISPI and a frequent contributor to its various publications. He can be contacted at or on his website at Connect with Fred and read his posts on LinkedIn at Follow Fred on Twitter at