Do we need a goal or is virtue sufficient purpose?

David Snowden has written on his blog about purpose and virtue (more specifically here, here, here and here). I find it a fascinating line of thought, but still cannot  wrap my head around it completely. The basic idea is that in contrast to systems thinking, where an idealized future is identified and interventions aim to close the gap to this future, complexity thinking (or at least the one advocated by Snowden) focuses on managing in the present and with that enabling possible futures to emerge or evolve that could not have been anticipated. Now the latter, the management without a specific goal, of course, asks for a purpose or motivation. Why should we bother, if we don’t have a goal?


Acting in the present to my mind without a defined purpose in the sense of explicit goals and targets opens you up to evolving to future possibilities that could not be fully anticipated but which are more sustainable and resilient.

As an additional reason to be weary about explicit goals Snowden also cites Strathern’s variation of Goodhart’s Law that says When a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure, as well as scientific evidence that shows that explicit rewards undermine intrinsic motivation. Regarding this last point, he talks in a recent podcast that I recorded with Snowden about the incentive to reach set goals in order to harvest the reward, instead of working towards true development of the systems (as whatever we define that).

Admitting that at least a the need for a sense of direction, Snowden continues

In a world where there are some constraints we can have an idea of the direction in which we want to travel without having to be precise about the route we take.  We have time to essay safe-to-fail experiments and determine their impact to allow amplification or dampening.

With a world where there are some constraints, Snowden of course means a world in the domain of the complex, according to his Cynefin model.

Snowden suggests that virtue can be our guide as to which direction we should take with our actions:

To be honest I have always held the position (…) that the solution to this is in Artistotle’s idea of living a virtuous life, something that requires not simply knowledge, but also practice; (…)

In subsequent posts, Snowden maps out what this means in more practical terms.

Now I can see that this approach does have a lot of appeal for ongoing operations. I have, however, a hard time imagining it applied in a development program, i.e. something with a beginning and an end and in need to prove that something was achieved. Although I do understand that there is a risk that predefined targets create wrong incentives for project managers, I also see the need for a defined success factor for a project to be evaluated against.

Complicating things is that in complex systems, setting narrow targets does not make sense. To quote Snowden again

A complex system is not causal but dispositional, so we can’t define an end state per se.


It is worth remembering that the need here is to deal with the present; with the decisions that we make which close off options for the future.

Acknowledging this already gives us a sense that we will not be able to define exact targets for a project or design in advance an optimal solution how to achieve these targets without shutting out all other possible solutions that could have evolved from the present.

So rather than defining exactly what a project should achieve in terms of detailed indicators at the level of our target population, a goal should give the project a sense of direction where it wants to go and allow it to evolve ways to do that in the given context. But how to measure the success of the project then?

According to Snowden, one key can be to analyze narratives and how they change in a statistically meaningful way. In this way, we could even set targets for how narratives should change. This sounds indeed like an interesting option and I am going to spend more time to find out all about it!

Listen to the podcast, where Dave explains this in more detail. Here again the link to the podcast:

4 thoughts on “Do we need a goal or is virtue sufficient purpose?

  1. Dr. Shawn Cunningham

    Dear Marcus,
    Thank you for a brilliant post where you share with us how you are grappling with this issue of goals and the desired state of systems. We indeed face a challenge where the principles of complexity thinking seems to relevant to our field, but the consequences seems to be huge.

    As practitioners we have to reconcile different schools of thought that appears to be conflictual. The risk with this is that people choose the theories that fit their objectives or their practices. For instance, in change management it is acknowledged that a goal or vision of where to change to is important. However, in contrast, the Theory of constraints (A school of Management science particularly popular in engineering and production) it is not so important to know where to change to, but to know what to change and how to change it (here is vision is not so important).

    I fully agree with Strathern’s variation of Goodhart’s Law that says “When a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure”, I am frequently challenged by this natural behavior when I work with development projects. The indicator becomes the target and often the original intention of why a certain indicator was chosen is forgotten.

  2. Peter Gray

    Very provocative post, in the best sense! The importance and disregard of open-endedness is also apparent in education policy, where interventions are thrown into chaotic systems with an implausible degree of faith in causality -” let’s do X in science education so that more young people will become scientists”. Teaching science better is a desirable thing in the present, which does not need to be tied to future outcomes. The other aspect of this is that doing nothing, or doing less – often a desirable course – is the purest acknowledgement of emergence, but does not fit the political ‘action man’ model, and provides no basis for spurious causal linkages.

    1. Marcus Jenal

      Dear Peter. Thanks for your comment. I agree with your that the education policy field is indeed also a field where open-endedness can make sense. I don’t think it is a chaotic system, though, but rather a complex one, which means that there are certain constraints in the system that give it structure and that we can use to work with. This also means that our interventions have some effects that can be measured and we might even be able to establish some prove that teaching science does actually have a beneficial effect, i.e. we don’t need to just assume it, also if it does not serve a specific quantitative goal. Still, and here comes the grappling, the goal of the education system is to produce capable students or eventually capable workers for our labor market. In this sense, success can be measured by the degree of which students are ready to get a job – which is, according to an article in a recent Economist, astonishingly low. So, to conclude, I think there is a strong purpose in the education system that we can use as a sense of direction to design interventions and against which we can measure the success of our interventions.

  3. cheulrico

    Dear Marcus, for me it is very helpful when you translate David Snowden and relate his Cynefin approach to our development work.
    Reading your post I see that even in a complex environment we need to have some orientation (call it goal or vision). Without a sense of direction each intervention would be arbitrary. At the same time Snowden warns not to be too narrow in the definition of our targets.
    My learning from this post is, we always need to balance between in trying to understand the here-and-now and future goals we try to reach. In that sense I suggest to understand Snowden more as a reminder to weight stronger the understanding of the current patterns, but keep a general orientation in mind.
    This attitude or mindset is very helpful to revisit certain believes how development should work, connect with the complexity of the reality and overcome narrow ideological thinking and doing. In general, this approach helps us to question our own believes, make our interventions more flexible and, hopefully, more relevant and effective.
    Thanks again Marcus for this tutorial on complexity for development practice.
    Kind regards and merry Christmas


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