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The importance of an overarching goal

management, business, business goals, mission statement, administration, leading, organizing, directing, staffing

The concept of an overarching goal is directly analogous to the concept of a super ordinate goal or mission for the total organization. Peters and Waterman found in their study of excellent companies that each had a chief executive officer who had articulated a goal that used only a few words to summarize what was unique and special about the company, what employees could focus on and use as a guideline, and what the company stood for. IBM, for example, has as its super ordinate goal ‘customer service’. Hewlett – Packard’s is’ innovative people at all levels. Sears stands for ‘value at a decent price’. AT and T has been guided by the idea of ‘universal service’. Bechtel, a huge construction company, prides itself on ‘a fine feel for the doable’. GE is known for its ‘progress is our most important product‘theme.

But the organization’s goal needs to be translated, or specifically formulated, for each department or unit. Exactly what is the goal that general electric’s CAT scanner service department should follow to be consistent with the idea of progress as a product? What is the goal of the finance department within IBM’s office products division that supports ‘customer service?’ How does the contract estimating department at Bechtel run itself to have a ‘fine feel for the doable?’ Even when the organization as a whole has a clearly articulated and well – supported super ordinate goal – an- all – too – rare occurrence in American companies – each unit must also have an overarching goal that does specifically for the unit’s members what the corporate goal does for the company at large. Even if the organization has nothing more explicit than its generalized purpose, a unit can be greatly aided by adopting a goal.

The unit’s goal must be consistent with overall corporate goals, but it is more than a mere restatement of a company purpose, instead, it must be distinctive and suited to the specific unit’s purpose and competencies. An overarching goal has several important effects. It builds a common frame of reference that allows people with different backgrounds and varying orientations to pull collectively towards the same ends. It is an important force for change; it describes what could be, what the department should strive for. Finally, it is highly motivational. It places individual tasks within a larger framework, thereby giving work greater significance.

In some ways the overarching goal is the departmental parallel to a corporate strategic posture, in which a firm examines the environment and its opportunities, assesses its own capabilities, and then determines a market niche that will allow it to be successful. Just as the chief executive officer must lead the effort to formulate a strategy that can be encapsulated in an exciting, challenging super ordinate goal statement, the middle manager needs to work toward the formulation and dissemination of a departmental overarching goal.

An effective overarching goal has four essential characteristics:
1.The goal reflects the core purpose of the department;
2.The goal is feasible and consistent with the general purpose of the organization as a whole, compatible with what other departments can deliver, and feasible in terms of the departmental manager’s personal capacities;
3.The goal is challenging – tasks that are stretching – difficult but achievable – will pull the best from most subordinates;
4.The goal has larger significance – people will extend themselves for work that they see is important, though not all tasks can have earth – shattering significance, most work can be put in terms that highlight it’s meaning to others.

One example of a use, although unusual, overarching goal occurred in the maintenance department of a medium size company. The leader saw his department as ‘the glue that holds the organization together’. Normally, this opinion might be a bit presumptuous, but it was somewhat valid in this situation since the company was faced with stringent economic belt – tightening in order to survive. There would be no money in the foreseeable future for new equipment or major renovations. Engineering had to help other departments make do with what plant and equipment they had, so the department’s ability to respond quickly to requests for repairs and refurbishing did much to boost morale in the struggling organization. Members of the department increasingly saw themselves as vital to the organization’s survival rather than as the ones who had to do the dirty work. The manager found he needed far less time seeing that people actually put in their hours and more time jointly solving problems raised by subordinates who were eager to perform. When combined with challenge, a goal that underlines the larger organizational significance of everyday tasks can be highly motivating.

Another way of looking at goals is based on their functions, or on whom they serve. One example of this approach classifies organizational goals on the basis of whose point of view is recognized. This typology includes five categories of goals:
1. Societal goals refer to society in general;
2. Output goals refer to the public in contact with the organization;
3. System goals refer to the state or manner of functioning or the organization, independent of the goods and services it produces or its derived goals;
4. Product goals refer to the characteristics of the goods or services provided;
5. Derived goals refer to the uses to which the organization puts the power it generates in pursuit of other goals.

An organization is likely to have goals in each area of this typology; perhaps even more than one.
Published: 2007-04-14
Author: Martin Hahn

About the author or the publisher
Martin Hahn PhD has received his education and degrees in Europe in organizational/industrial sociology. He grew up in South-East Asia and moved to Europe to get his tertiary education and gain experience in the fields of scientific research, radio journalism, and management consulting.

After living in Europe for 12 years, he moved to South-East again and has worked for the last 12 years as a management consultant, university lecturer, corporate trainer, and international school administrator

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