Target Area

Target Area

From setting goals and achieving targets

Author: Dr. Margit Sarstedt


Goal definition, agreed targets, achievements – what is the right usage of these tools? How do we fill them with contents? We have seen fashion-trends, first the precise SMART trend [1], now the flexible Agile trend [2]. From over 25 year of experience in project management and leadership I can say, none of these two will assure reaching our goal. It’s the right mixture that counts. An argument for common sense.


What is the Goal?

Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox have already raised this question in their 1984 book The Goal [3] in a beautiful way. Right at the beginning of the book the protagonist is faced with the question of the primary goal of his manufacturing site. Should the goal lie in good quality or in lowering the costs? Is it technology development or rather market share? He finally finds the overriding goal for his manufacturing site, which is making profit.

This was his realization for his specific situation. Other projects, other customer requests, other business and life situations might comprise other goals. Always, however, there is one such overriding goal to be found, the one goal of what it’s really all about. Finding this overriding goal and defining it constitutes – in organizational structures – the classical challenge for management levels. It makes sense to request and promote in managers not only goal orientation but also a distinct capability to find and define goals in the first place.

The future is often, however, – when creating a project plan or going through the yearly planning cycle – even for experienced managers somewhat foggy. In an environment which is in continual change and can hardly be overlooked in full, this creates uncertain conditions right from the start of the endeavor. To base a detailed project or yearly plan upon such uncertainties is bound to bring up problems later-on. It leads to necessary course changes in the middle of the action, frictional losses occur, and in extreme cases it results in failure.

In customer specific projects

this problem shows up in the form of constantly changing specifications, triggered by the customers themselves or by technical necessities or new realizations during the course of the project. As a result we often see considerable time and budget overruns.

In employee appraisal talks,

evaluating the yearly achievements, this dilemma also shows up. Managers and team members typically develop their own strategy to deal with the changing side conditions. There is the method to only define very precise and quantifiable mini-goals, which are measurable and can later-on meticulously be accounted for. In another version one retrospectively reinterprets the contents of the goals. Alternatively, both parties agree that although the goals have not been reached, other comparable results have been accomplished. And finally there is the questionable method to define the goals for the year only shortly before the end of the year. In spite of these difficulties the instrument of agreed targets is generally seen as an established means for company management. And using is sensibly it is – in my eyes – a very valuable tool indeed.

How to set sensible goals in projects and yearly planning cycles?

In the present trend towards agile management [4] one tries to steer away from it. By appreciating right from the beginning the variability of side conditions, it is accepted to have a vagueness in goals. Through new information from the environment, and through experience gained during the course of the project, a honing in on the final goals happens over time. A good and appropriate approach in principle.

On the other hand, a clear goal definition also serves the purpose of alignment among all participants, combining the forces to steer activities towards the one joint goal. Without this common understanding the risk of diverging paths of actions arises, which is not good. Therefore, the agility is only sensible if at least the >>> target area <<< is clearly defined und presented in a comprehensible way. And in my opinion it has to always be possible to identify a target area, otherwise it does not constitute an astute endeavor.

And the characteristics of a target area

The above discussed character as overriding goal is definitely important, meaning it has to be well understood what really matters. Furthermore, it requires looking farsightedly into the future whilst simultaneously taking the present situation into account.

It has to be a sincere and honest scrutiny, in the sense that right at the beginning the input from all participating stakeholders (requestor, realizer, recipient) should contribute to the picture. That way political games can be prevented and practical requirements can be clearly worked out. A corridor into the future opens up, being narrow in the near future and widening further down the road. The important thing is that this corridor is pointing into the right direction.

Within this corridor, curving paths and corners will evolve, forking and merging roads will appear.

To go forward in this diversity of ways requires, in my experience, the capability for a subtle steering of events, a high level of leadership skill, combined with a strong will to support the team members and a dedication for joint and continual adjustment of the situation. The manager has to actively supply this service to the team members.

So let’s take another look at the

project management with external customers.

Although precise specifications might not be available at the start, it will always be possible to define the target area. In close collaboration with all participants (customers, suppliers, internal resources) an iterative solution path can be formed. But attention: this approach has serious economic consequences. In addition to being very resource intensive, it may also result in considerable additional development and realization costs. Flexible goals, agile course changes amidst the duration of the project, therefore require a thorough preparation on sales side, as customer contracts need to contain some good regulations regarding “agile cost coverage”.

Let us also see how this concept works out for

goal setting and achievement evaluation in employee appraisals.

I am convinced that every human being, and thus every employee, is striving for development (being it in the form of increasing knowledge, or taking over responsibility, or developing one’s own personality). Therefore, simply omitting an achievement review and feedback is not a good idea. However, in view of the concepts of target area and future corridor the contents of such review has to be adapted. Aside from the assessment of completion of individual tasks, the basis for feedback, it seems to me, should lie in the questions: did the employee contribute to bringing the endeavor nearer towards the target area, and did the employee add to the efforts to reduce the size of the target area in a sensible way?

My conclusions for successful target setting and goal achievement:

  • Regardless of how tight or wide a goal or a target area is defined, the key is to address the overriding goal level.
  • Project planning and realization, as well as yearly business planning and appraisal reviews, require an approach emphasizing not goals but target areas and future-corridor thinking.
  • In company internal documents one needs to introduce an appropriate language to reflect this approach (in large companies, often this has been done already).
  • But also in legal contracts with external partners adjustments are required.
  • When used sensibly, this way of thinking facilitates general clarity on the direction to be taken, while at the same time allows for flexibility over the course of time.


[1] Wikipedia (as of June 21, 2018): SMART (Projektmanagement);

[2] Wikipedia (as of June 21, 2018): Agilität (Management);

[3] Eliyahu M. Goldratt, Jeff Cox: Das Ziel – Ein Roman über Prozessoptimierung; Deutsche Ausgabe, dritte Auflage 2002, Campus Verlag Frankfurt/New York, ISBN 3-593-36701-7; English Original „The Goal. Excellence in Manufacturing” (© 1984, 1986, 1992 Eliyahu M. Goldratt).

 [4] Gabler Wirtschaftslexikon (as of June 21, 2018): Agile Managementmethoden;