Why does your municipal water infrastructure exist? Who set it up? What were they striving to achieve?

What is the purpose of your hospital? Whose agenda does it serve?

Over the years, the principal goal of many institutions and corporations has been to centralize control. In their own ways, Catholicism, Genghis Khan, Comcast, and Google have all sought to dictate their own monochrome ideals to the rest of the world. Such blatantly totalizing agendas have a lot to teach us about the power of goals.

When a corporation or ideology sets out to bring more and more of the world under its control – whether to make profits or to convert heathens – everything else it does will follow suit. Consider how a corporation is beholden to cause of generating return on the investment for its shareholders. You can tweak, arrange, and strategize all you want to change company culture, but ultimately the goal of profit will seep into every nook and cranny. It is inevitable. It seems impossible to disentangle the goal of a corporation from its day-to-day operations: the parts of the corporation that do not serve the goal will eventually be shuttered. Or, in religious terms, excommunicated.

This is why goals are so powerful. It is mostly impossible to change a system without changing its goal, and vice versa. To change one is to change the other. However, sometime such a shift occurs swiftly, at an enormous scale: like when a demagogue or revolutionary figurehead taps into the hopes and fears of the disenfranchised masses. Revolts and rebellions are ultimately demands for the goals of the system to change.

Institutions survive by evolving their goals. The big railroad companies that held monopolies in transport and travel are no more. What happened? Railroads suffered from a chronic case of ‘Marketing Myopia’, according to economist Theodore Levitt:

The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because that need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, and even telephones) but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry incorrectly was that they were railroad oriented instead of transportation oriented; they were product oriented instead of customer oriented…1

For another example, consider the photography industry. Kodak was revolutionary in its radically innovative goal of making photography accessible for everyone, but eventually got so wrapped up in the goal selling film that it grew uncompetitive in overall picture-making market.

  1. Levitt, Theodore. (1960). Marketing Myopia. The Harvard Business Review. July–August 1960. p. 138 

Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Goals' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on September 29, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink: https://jamesshelley.com?p=17128
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