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Prioritizing Decision Making and Goal Setting in Project Development

Written by Sam Kenworthy and originally published at the Porvenir Design blog.

Every project starts with a goal in mind. Regardless of scale or time line, the inception of a project revolves around achieving a goal of some sort. Despite how seemingly simple it is to set a goal for a project, even the best of plans are often sidetracked, delayed, or made overly expensive because of a lack of clear vision for the completed project. Purposeful planning that steers projects in the right direction, coupled with accurate goal setting, is one effective way to avoid hiccups and get from point A to point B faster. Goal setting and a matching planning process also circumvent potential future problems. For example, nobody ever planned to have rotting fruit at the base of their trees; the goal was likely to have fruit growing on site. The goal was clear, but the planning lacked the foresight to contemplate size of tree, production capacity, on site processing potential, or any number of other consideration. By keeping the end goal of a project at the forefront at all times, and using that goal to inform steps forward, projects move efficiently and smoothly. This article serves to outline how to approach goal setting and planning, and also addresses how your project can see more and better results more quickly with a few basic principles.


Who Makes Decisions?

Any project has lots of moving parts, the most complicated of which are the personalities involved. Emotions, inter-personal connections, cultural nuances, or plain human nature can heavily influence planning processes, and often times skew goal setting to reflect temporary personal interests rather than long term project success. A good example of this comes from a few years ago, when I was working with a team designing a multi-purpose building that was meant to model a variety of features that suited the tropical island environment and minimized ecological footprint. Human comfort, water catchment features, and locally suitable building materials were all in play, and using air conditioning was not in the picture. Among other elements, the color of the roof played a significant role in regulating internal building temperature. To achieve the goal of the project, it was a no-brainer to use reflective, environmentally benign, white paint for the roofs. However, some members of the team had an emotional attachment to blue roof paint, simply because other buildings on the site had blue roofs. Eventually, white won the day, but had the roofs been painted blue, there would have been a good chance that any other design features included to lower internal building temperature would have been rendered useless.

Establishing a goal that reflects the needs and aspirations of a project can help to eliminate potential problems that arise due to emotional connections to certain aspects of a project. Including more players in the decision making process also levels the playing field. Before embarking on a project, it is important to bring together all stakeholders involved in the entire process. Owners, family members, employees, volunteers, those in charge of executing the project, clients, or representatives of any of the aforementioned need to be considered, just to mention a few. How can one design a workshop or a kitchen without consulting the needs of the carpenters or cooks who will be using the space on a daily basis? Can a classroom be effective without considering the needs of the students that fill it or the teachers that work there on a daily basis? While working on a coffee project in Colombia, the need for developing a garden space for production for the farm kitchen became apparent. None of the men involved worked in the kitchen, though, and the ladies preparing the food for the farm staff were not consulted. Navigating cultural barriers like this is critical, and this particular project will likely have limited success simply because not enough stakeholders were considered when making decisions. Although not every stakeholder needs to be involved in each step of the planning process, using all available input to inform decision making at the onset of a project is critical to a successful goal setting and planning process. Some themes to consider:

  • Inclusion of any current and potentially future stakeholders at the onset of a project is essential to planning that reflect real needs and accurate design
  • Do your best to separate emotion from decision making; consider present and future needs and goals
  • Who might be involved in the future that isn’t involved now? Consider how the project could change over time


Critical Questions

The critical question that consistently proves hardest to answer is, “What do you want?” Defining what you and the rest of the stakeholders want from a project is time consuming and perplexing; don’t underestimate how complicated this question can be. Getting to the root of what the real desired outcome for a project is takes digging, and it’s easy to get stuck in the mud. To get through the process, consider these strategies:

  • Establish clear goals that define what you want, rather than how you are going to get it
  • Think of the long term implications of your goals, every decision carries an associated result
  • Goal set with broad strokes, aim high; make your goal hard to reach
  • Ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing, and whether or not your actions move you closer to reaching your desired outcomes
  • Use feedback loops to stay informed and react accordingly


What Do You Want to Achieve?

When starting a project, a common tendency is to get mired in details that are not relevant until a much later stage of development. In permaculture, we refer to this process as working from patterns to details. For example, discussing the layout of a particular room in a future home or building before determining if the structure fits within the goal of the project in the first place is all too common. Details are fun and exciting to work out over the course of a project, but figure these minutia out after establishing a goal that serves as a guide for the project as a whole. In a recent project, a client met with Porvenir Design to discuss options for making his land economically profitable. He had no pre-set notions; he wanted to know what was viable commercially, what would suit the landscape, and he was entirely flexible. His goal was clear: the land needed to at the very least be able to pay for its own upkeep and maintenance within a short amount of time. This is a great example of clear definition of a goal, in this case, a cash positive property. Before getting into ideas of how to develop, he asked for market research, soil testing, and several other details that would inform how to best move forward. His case was a perfect example of how to approach a project of raw property development. Conversely, a different set of clients approached Porvenir Design with a request to evaluate their property to see what could work for them. They wanted to develop, but they were not sure how. After delivering a lengthy analysis to the client, all momentum stopped. There were several viable options that considered, forestry, eco-tourism, conservation, and even selling parts of the property, but the project stalled because the clients could not decide what it was that they really wanted. In both of these cases, the distinction between physical and geographical attributes of the properties in question was not that significant, however, the approach to getting a project moving was far more efficient in the case of the former.


Long Term Vision

Understanding time lines is critical. Are you developing a project to last a year, your lifetime, your children’s lifetimes? Defining the longevity of a system will clarify many other aspects of a project ranging from appropriate financial investment to scale of building or planting. We often work with projects that are seeking long term re-generative results, think seventy five years of impact or more. Some of the common goals in multi-generational projects are productivity, profitability, and eco-system health and conservation. When possible, try to bring all of these factors to the table at each stage of development. For how long will a tree produce before it starts a decline in production? How long will a home suit your family; will your stakeholder group grow? Can your hotel’s waste water system withstand a 20% growth in guest capacity? In a project in the Caribbean, clients are currently planning to rebuild after suffering severe damages during the 2017 hurricane season. They are considering not only climactic changes that will dictate how severe storms are in the near term, they are also taking into consideration creating space for their children and potential grandchildren that can withstand future storms. Their goal is to create a positive impact and strong connection to an environment that has given so much to them in their lifetimes. They want to insure that this relationship continues beyond their lifetimes, and are planning accordingly. Will the development be staged? Absolutely. Will they see all of their plans take life? Likely not. However, they are taking the long term approach and setting the base for a successful and abundant future for future generations. A slightly different approach was taken by a client in Costa Rica: he didn’t know exactly how his life was going to unfold, but he knew he wanted to moved ahead with developing small scale tourism on his land. His planning and long term goals revolved around short term profitability and wildlife habitat creation. To meet those goals, he planned to build one small cabin and some hiking trails, but left space and infrastructure in the ground to expand within the parameters of his goals. Although he wasn’t sure where he was going, he knew what his goals were, and those goals informed his movements.


Mile High Perspective

More often than not, goal setting needs to be done at a macro level. Think of flying in a plane and looking down at a landscape rather than using a magnifying glass to see tiny details. A zoomed out view affords the use of broader brush strokes and allows big picture connections to come together. In a goal setting context, this might mean setting a goal such as, “having free time to travel” or “generating income” or “re-generating native forests.” Additionally, try to set a goal that is challenging to meet. If the goal is too easy to reach, the project risks loosing momentum and meaning. For instance, if your goal is to produce a percentage of your own food, once just one of your trees begins to bear fruit, the goal is no longer something to strive for. In one example, a client told me that she wanted to be able to travel off of her property for at least a month at a time at least twice per year. Directly afterwards she explained that she also wanted to have chickens and was working with a limited budget. As it turns out, animals like chickens require daily maintenance, and paying a worker to look after livestock in her absence is a costly endeavor. We had a goal setting discussion, and she began to prioritize what meant most to her over the long term, and decided to phase the animals in at a later date. The challenge was not finding the client free time to travel, but rather designing systems that were self maintaining, so she could have her cake and eat it, too. Aiming high forces one to continually check back to their original goal to make sure that their actions are always moving in the right direction. In the previous example, a naturally occurring feedback look steered the goal setting exercise in the right direction.


Feedback Loops

When working through the planning stages of a project do your best to keep referring back to what your original goal was, and ask yourself, “How do my actions get me closer to where I want to be; why am I doing what I’m doing?” Continually checking back to make sure that your actions line up with your goals is a sure fire way to stay on track. Life is hectic at times, and goals can be lost just as easily as a set of keys or your glasses. Asking yourself if you’re on the right path keeps you within the confines of your goal. This does not mean that you can not shift speeds or change plans; any project needs to be as dynamic as life is. However, creating this feedback loop will keep a project focused. Feedback loops keep you prioritized, as well. A few years back while working on a project that involved a multi-year implementation process, a stake holder asked why the vegetable garden that was drawn into the plans wasn’t producing anything yet. An good question, no doubt, but a question that didn’t consider scale or prioritization of work. The project was designed to produce food for a campus of students, but the campus itself was years away from hosting any students to speak of. Planting out a vegetable garden made little sense in the early stages of the project when there were still no mouths around to consume the produce. The feedback loop pushed the veggie patch to another stage of the project and allowed those involved to spend more time on developing the project as whole rather than focusing on a small, time consuming detail.

An important part of creating a feedback loop is to accept that your plan will likely have problems. In some cases, it is even best to assume your plan will fail in some way. Planning for adjustments leads to a steady observation of your project, which in turn will lead to improving your project through making any needed adjustments so that your project still delivers the goals you originally set out for yourself. A feedback loop also establishes a way to check your goals with the task at hand. A plan, followed by observation and control for errors, then followed by re-planning is a pattern we see in all aspects of our work. Take your morning routine as an example of how feedback loops function. If you are a coffee or tea drinker, you likely heat water, brew your beverage, and settle into drinking it while carrying out whatever other morning tasks you may have. If you didn’t use enough coffee, your coffee is weak, and you adjust your plan for the following day and add more grounds. If the water isn’t hot, the brew doesn’t steep properly, so you make sure to get the water right around boiling temperature before brewing. If you drink your coffee while it is too hot, you get burned, so you adjust your timing. All of these basic actions involve changing plans in response to feedback. The goal never changed, which was to make and drink coffee. How you got there shifted over time to the point that you likely have been the unwitting user of a feedback loop!

For many people, mornings are all a routine, established over months or years of feedback and adjustment, all focused on the central goal of having a warm cup of coffee in the morning. The bottom line is that paying careful attention to feedback loops informs you of any adjustments that need to be made before things go really amiss. A classic example comes from a farmer I met in Colorado who ran a grass fed cattle operation. One year, he didn’t get nearly as much spring rain as he expected, and his pasture suffered; he ended up not having enough grass to be able to feed all of his cattle throughout the year. The silver lining was that through observation he knew well in advance that he wasn’t going to have enough pasture to fatten his livestock for market. This informed him that he was going to have to sell some cows at a younger age than he wanted, or else buy grain feed that would compromise his goals. He knew from many months out that he was going to make less money, which informed his actions for all other aspects of his farm management. The feedback loop didn’t change his goals at all, but rather informed his decision making to stay aligned with his goals with a slight adjustment in planning.


Incorporating Goal Setting

It would be naive to think that all projects are as simple as deciding what you want to do and getting the job done. Most projects have various stakeholders, complex dynamics, restricted budgets, and myriad other complications. However, there are many projects that are conceived and started without having considered what the end goal might be. Most of these type of projects end up with a result that isn’t exactly what was planned for, most likely more costly than expected, and perhaps even halted all together without ever being completed. If any of these scenarios sound familiar, delving into planning and goal setting is good place to go for improved results. Exercises directed at finding the root goal of a project are extremely helpful in orienting a map towards a goal. Although it seems simple, one of the most time consuming parts of a project is clearly defining what the goal is. What do you want the project to achieve? Goals do not need to be singular by any means, but they do need to be well defined. At the foundation of all projects there is a reason for being and growing. Find that base, and use it to direct all of your actions moving forward. Ask yourself if what you are doing is getting you closer to your goal. If not, consider readjusting.

It is common to find a project that is a mix of many different processes happening simultaneously. What is also common are projects that have multiple things happening at once, non of which harmonize with each other or connect to a common end. A complicated dance of many parts, some projects seek outside help to create relationships between stages of development, groups of workers, or even between the goals themselves. These overlaps within the parts of a project often make themselves apparent over time, but making the most of relationships between elements such as buildings and landscape, water and inhabitants, or animals and your kitchen takes practice. Again, the feedback loop that results from continually trying to move towards a goal will reflect what needs to be adjusted in a project’s process. Learn from the shortcomings of a task or parts of a project, and use those lessons to inform how the project moves forward. Although the feedback may not immediately fix the problem, at the very least it makes one aware of what to expect, and surprises are limited. By knowing what the coming months hold well in advance, a project can be managed in such a way that one still moves towards the original goal without loosing stride. At the end of the day, project success revolves around decision making and appropriate interpretation of feedback. If you can master those two parts, you will likely end up even better off than where you wanted to be at the beginning.

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