Process vs. Product Goals


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I thought I knew everything I could possibly need to know about goal-setting. To be fair, this is not an unreasonable assumption. Not only am I naturally ambitious and reflective, but I taught high school English in our current era of high-stakes assessment. My entire professional life revolved around improving students’ test scores. Goal-setting was a huge part of that.

I can rattle off all kinds of data about the necessity of clear targets as a motivational and focusing force. I can easily align my goals to larger frameworks (say, for instance, a teacher evaluation system). I can toss in an acronym for good measure whenever I’m analyzing a goal’s efficacy. “Is this a S.M.A.R.T. goal?” I ask. “Is it specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, and timely?”

And yet, something’s been missing in my relentless quest to set and clear ever-higher hurdles. That “something” is the thoughtful selection of process versus product goals.

In this article from the Ivey Business Journal, authors Gary P. Latham and Gerard Seijts give a great (though lengthy and corporation-directed) description of the two types of goals. Here’s the gist for busy creative types:

  • A product goal (also known as a performance goal) places the focus on outcome. It assumes that whoever’s striving to meet the goal already has the skills necessary to achieve it. He, she, or they just require further focus and/or motivation. This is the writer boldly stating, “I will write an 80,000 word novel before the end of 2017.”
  • A process goal (also known as a learning goal) acknowledges up front that the person or people trying to achieve the goal still need to acquire vital knowledge or skills. It encourages experimentation and allows for mistakes. An example might be “I will discover three ways to reengage with my manuscript when all I want to do is quit.”

Which kind of goals do you tend to set? For my own part, I always focus on product. I thought this was the fabulously effective way to do things, as it fit within that whole SMART acronym for goal setting.

Yet as Latham and Seijts point out, setting a specific product-oriented goal can be quite damaging if you do it too early in your learning curve. They explain that a novice’s attention “needs to be focused on discovering and mastering the processes required to perform well, rather than on reaching a certain level of performance.”

Makes sense, right? I’ve been driven by my resolution to finish a novel. I’ve been disgusted by my inability to do so. And I’ve been missing my opportunity to reflect, regroup, and really grow.

As Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way, “Focused on process, our creative life retains a sense of adventure. Focused on product, the same creative life can feel foolish or barren.”

I’m sure I’ll find my 2017 direction eventually. But for now, this post is part of a larger series on creative goal setting. While I ponder my path forward, I’d love to hear some examples of process or learning goals that have inspired your work in the past. 



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