Think Project, Not Goal

When the Institute of the Future identified ten key skills for the future workforce, one of the most important in the list is what they call “Cognitive Load Management”.

This is what we used to call time management, and has expanded over time to include concepts such as productivity, goal setting, stress management, work/life balance, and information overload.

Cognitive load management is the same basic concept, but emphasises the skills of managing large amounts of information, interruptions, and demands on our time and attention. It reflects the reality of our world now, where many traditional productivity techniques simply don’t work anymore. For example:

  • We used to set 12-month goals, but the world is changing so fast that they become obsolete.
  • You could shut yourself off for hours at a time to do uninterrupted work, but now we’re too easily distracted and interrupted (and need to be available).
  • You had all your team available during fixed office hours, but they now want more flexible working hours.
  • They were happy to put the organisation’s goals first (in exchange for fair pay), but now expect to achieve their own goals as well.

As a result, you need new strategies for productivity and performance.

Think projects, not goals.

One of the most important productivity skills for the future is to think in terms of projects rather than goals.

As I said, setting a “long-term” goal (and even 12 months is long now!) no longer works because the world changes so fast that the goal becomes obsolete.

So create projects instead.

A project is a small, clearly-defined job. Like a goal, it has an outcome, but it also has a plan attached to it. And it has a shorter timeframe.

Sending a man to the Moon was a goal. Each individual rocket on that journey was a project.

I like 90-day projects.

When working on your business, launch a project every 90 days.

The nice thing about a 90-day project is that you can plan it with a reasonable amount of confidence. It’s long enough to do something significant, but short enough that the world won’t change too much around you. There might be the occasional change that means you have to adjust your plan, but you probably won’t have to throw it out altogether.

An additional benefit of 90-day projects is that they make performance reviews more useful. The typical annual performance review has limited value, and everybody does it reluctantly. But if you do it every 90 days instead, it becomes practical, useful, and motivating.

Every 90 days, choose one project for yourself and one for your team as a whole (with their input). Then ask each team member to choose a project as well. It helps if that project is related to the team project, but that is not essential.

These individual projects are as important as the team project because they acknowledge what every individual (including you) brings to your workplace. As important as it is to work together as a team, it’s also important for individuals to thrive and flourish.

If you’re already an experienced project manager, you could now take the 90-day project and treat it like any other project – with milestones, tasks, resources, dependencies, and so on. However, this is probably too much detail for such a small project. A simpler approach is to break this down week by week. That gives you about a dozen small, manageable chunks.

You have about 12 weeks to complete the project, so break it down week by week. Plan out the 12 weeks, with a milestone at the end of each week. If you know the path you need to take, you might be able to do this easily. If not, make a rough plan anyway, knowing you can adjust it as things become clearer.

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2 replies
  1. Justus Lewis
    Justus Lewis says:

    I like that you are doing the hard yards of research for all of us in this field. Thank you, Gihan.
    I think the reframe/rethinking of goals as projects has a lot to commend it. Projects are open-ended and can throw up all sorts of useful potential whereas goals are either in or out.
    Also, projects lend themselves more naturally to collaborative efforts that recognise the multiplicity of skills required and the value of outsourcing; goals tend to be scored by individuals even when there is team support.

  2. John Drury
    John Drury says:

    Great reframe Gihan. I like 90 day plans. They work. Setting them around projects is a great way to simplify the concept of goal setting. It helps people to break down the plan into steps which can be scheduled. I teach 90 day planning and it is amazing how many people struggle with this. Thank you for your article.


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