The Drifting Goals Archetype applies to situations where short-term solutions lead to the deterioration of long-term goals. Also known as Eroding Goals, this is a special case of Shifting the Burden. This Systems Archetype was formally identified in Appendix 2 of The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge (1990). The Causal Loop Diagram (CLD) is shown below.
When a gap exists between the current state of the system and our goal (or desired state), we take action proportional to the gap to move the system state toward our goal. There is always a delay between the action we take and the effect on the system. Simultaneously, pressure is exerted to instead adjust the goal to close the gap. Adjusting the goal leads to a situation where the goal floats independently of any standard. It often leads to goals being reduced, or eroded.
Classic examples of drifting goals include:
- Reducing quality targets to improve measured quality performance (relative to goal) or to improve delivery schedule
- Reducing quality of ingredients or parts below company standards to improve profits
- Increasing time to deliver to match existing capacity and save on overtime
- Reducing a new product’s feature set to meet deadlines; this works the other way also, i.e., extending the deadline to include all of the features
- Reducing pollution targets when reduction implementation costs are too high
- Increasing budget deficit limits rather than decreasing spending (or increasing taxes)
- Adapting to unacceptable social circumstances rather than leave that environment
- Reducing entrance requirements because not enough applicants meet them
- Reducing level of patient care below recommended minimum due to understaffing
- Reducing margin to spur sales and meet revenue targets
- Lowering your own expectations in life, leading to lower personal success
Note that in many of these cases, there are competing goals and one is held more sacred than another. Drifting Goals is an insidious process that seeks to lower your standards to the level of the current state of the system. Stay aware of not just how the state of the system adjusts to your goal, but also of how your goal varies over time. Changing a goal should be a conscious decision that does not undermine other objectives.