Goal-oriented v. Strategy-oriented

I’ve had several jobs where I’m in a position to read a lot of CVs and cover letters and talk to a lot of job candidates. There are certain phrases that I’ve learned to just gloss over because they’re so generic that they say little about a given candidate. The worst offender? “Goal-oriented.”

Here’s how I interpret that term: Being goal-oriented means you run marathons, climb mountains, smash sales records. You set a goal and then you do whatever it takes to hit it. In the process, you’re not distracted by pain, exhaustion, or shiny objects. Giving up would lead to an identity crisis. You just get it done.

Here’s why I have a problem with that: Goal-orientation lacks flexibility and nuance. Goals are set in advance, and goal-orientation is inherently incompatible with reconsidering your goals, shifting them based on new information, or abandoning them entirely.

I’d much rather you be strategy-oriented. Being strategy-oriented doesn’t mean you lack goals, just as being goal-oriented doesn’t mean you lack strategy. It just means your emphasis and focus are in a different place.

Being strategy-oriented means you have a clear reasoning for why your actions will achieve your goals and why lower-level goals serve higher-level ones. This clear reasoning can be interrogated as opportunity costs shift or you learn new things. In fact, your strategy likely includes active probing of the environment, your own capabilities, and changes in both.

Here’s the difference:

  • Goal-orientation means that when you decide to start marathon training and go on a 5-mile run, you’re going to finish those all 5 of those miles—even if you realize at mile 3 that your knees are aching and you’ll need an extra two days to recover because you aren’t in the shape you thought you were in.
  • Strategy-orientation incorporates that new information about your knees, recognizes the tradeoffs, and reassesses the 5-mile goal in light of the broader goals, such as fitness and well-being. You adjust your route to 4 miles, give yourself extra time for stretching, and make sure you can wear comfortable shoes the rest of the day.

In a world of nuance and complexity, we need more strategy-orientation.

4 thoughts on “Goal-oriented v. Strategy-oriented

  1. I absolutely agree with your broader point, but completely disagree with your analogy. As someone who runs regularly and who is training for an ultra marathon, I would say that you set yourself a goal, and then have a strategy to get to that. In one season it would be folly that you would expect everything to go the way you plan to. Just last week I had planned to do 110km in that week, but felt a bit tired and decided to reduce both the total running, and the amount I would do in one go on Saturday, doing 20km in the morning and 14 in the afternoon instead. At the same time however, if you don’t set yourself goals and targets, it is all to easy to find excuses not to accomplish them. Saying that goal orientation is inherently incompatible with change base on new information is, in my opinion, wrong.

  2. I couldn’t agree more that we need more of the type of people that fall into your second category, but I fail to see how that can lead to such a sharp distinction between goal and strategy oriented, unless you do as you did, and use a maximalist version of a goal-oriented person. The analogy you picked also seems wrong, as a regular runner training for an ultra marathon, I have set myself a number of goals and delineated a strategy to accomplish them. Yet, just last week I revised my strategy of the amount of km that I wanted to target that week given how I felt. What goals and targets do for me is they do not let make me poor excuses and give me a nice benchmark. This benchmark however should be revised and updated as needs arise. I just don’t see such a sharp distinction between the two as you did I guess.

  3. Indeed, strange approach.

    Imagine: goal: be physically fit. Strategy: run marathon.

    Suddenly the inflexible one is the strategic one.

    This is why theory of change is so popular: strategies do have a tendency to become inflexible work plans, and you can easier restrategize around higher level, relevant goals.

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