Ensuring that goals are set and commonly understood is one of a project manager’s main responsibilities. Developing consensus on the goals of a piece of work should be one of the first areas of focus, for how can efforts be judged as effective or efficient if there’s no shared understanding of the desired outcome?

For any piece of work of non-negligible complexity (hereafter referred to as a “project”), it is also valuable to be explicit and exact about the non-goals of the project. A non-goal is an outcome for which there is no intention of focusing effort towards either achieving or preventing it as part of the project. Non-goals exist only within the scope of a specific project; there is no value judgement imposed on their objective value. Failure to achieve the non-goal does not represent a failure of the project, and achieving a non-goal does not make it more likely that the project has been successful.

There could be specific outcomes that you would wish to avoid as part of a project. These are not non-goals; instead, if they are sufficiently important, the negation of these outcomes can often be included as goals of the project. A non-goal typically manifests as an outcome that, while objectively desirable to occur, has intentionally not been prioritised within the context of the project. This is typically for reasons of insufficient return on investment, unacceptable opportunity cost, or other resource constraints that would get in the way of achieving another more important goal.

Intentionally enumerating, discussing, and broadcasting the non-goals of a project provides multiple independent benefits:

  1. Stakeholders will often hold differing hidden preferences and expectations. These can be inadvertent misalignments (e.g. arising from poor communication between stakeholders) or intentional information asymmetries (e.g. from individuals’ political manoeuvring). Providing a forum and culture for the discussion and communication of non-goals forces these dissonant perspectives to be revealed at an early stage of the planning process since the alternative is for a stakeholder to risk losing authority and respect through a public demonstration of their own non-engagement. This benefit manifests most strongly in environments where individuals have both the autonomy and safety to be candid and truthful in planning discussions.
  2. Effectively broadcasted non-goals comprise common knowledge that can be used to short-circuit distracting discussions that only serve to re-tread old ground, and ideally prevent such discussions from occurring at all (e.g. disagreements about the facts of what was implicitly prioritised as part of a project), as well as providing some baseline immunity from the organic volatility caused by scope creep. This is not meant to constrain creativity in solution design or lock-in inadvisable goals for the life of the project; on the contrary, the act of enumerating and communicating non-goals will often help clarify the project’s goals, and the non-goal justifications provide an opportunity to challenge the logic of the project’s goals either at the outset or as new information comes to light. Rather than preventing disagreement, they provide an efficient framework within which stakeholders can debate in a focused way.
  3. Clarity of purpose is a general accelerant. The more detail in which someone understands the expectations of their work, the more psychological safety they will have to focus on execution and more creatively exploring the solution space.

Illustrative examples below lay out hypothetical background context along with both goals and non-goals that are consistent with that background.

Improving software performance

A company is experiencing a constant increase in demand for its cloud accountancy software. The increase in usage is causing performance problems with their product, where users are reporting that the user interface will remain unresponsive for a long time before processing the results of a user pressing a button. The company are worried that this will lead to their clients using a competitor’s product, especially for workflow X (their most revenue-generating workflow). Their clients will decide whether to jump ship in 4 weeks.


  • Software development team A has the telemetry available to measure the median/P99/… of each software endpoint, both in aggregate and for each client.
  • P99 of endpoints involved in processing workflow X are reduced to under 2 seconds.
  • Over 95% of current clients continue to use the software for workflow X over the next 4-8 weeks.


The following could be a set of non-goals of the project. In each case, the generic “why?” answer for each of the non-goals is that the marginal return on investment of this development team focusing on them at this time was not sufficiently high, and so they were not prioritised by the leadership of the company.

Non-goalWhy might this have been a non-goal?
P99 of endpoints involved in workflow Y have been reduced to under 2 secondsWorkflow Y was not sufficiently profitable to merit immediate attention
New feature Z has been implemented to improve workflow profitabilityCustomer retention was more important at this point than scaling revenue
Development team A are alerted 24/7 if performance falls short of the agreed levelInsufficient flexibility in development team resourcing to permit a 24/7 alerting schedule; reactive investigation during business hours was deemed sufficient
Unresolved high-severity security vulnerabilities have been remediatedDevelopment team A did not possess the technical skillset to achieve this goal
The product has been migrated to a new development framework, reducing latency on all endpoints by W%Migration would not be completed until after predicted client churn due to existing poor product performance
Halt the onboarding of new customers to prevent further performance degradation.Political realities or technical constraints may prevent this from being a viable business strategy

Each of these non-goals can be addressed in a different way separately to this project. For example, to remediate high-severity security vulnerabilities, the company could choose to contract or hire application security specialists, train their existing employees, or mitigate the impact of the issues in some other way.

Refurbishing a bathroom

A family’s main bathroom is unfit for purpose due to broken appliances and requires refurbishment. The family are also taking this opportunity to redecorate the room.


  • The refurbished bathroom is fully installed within 8 weeks.
  • The refurbished bathroom is fully decorated within 10 weeks.
  • No more than £X has been paid for materials and labour.
  • Appliances A, B, C, and D from designer brand Z have been installed.
  • Spend time bargain-hunting as long as 1 hour of effort results in a saving of at least £100.


Non-goalWhy might this have been a non-goal?
The refurbished bathroom is fully installed within 4 weeks (instead of 8 weeks)Inability to have new appliances delivered on the required timeframe without substantial additional cost
No more than £Y has been paid for materials and labour (with \(Y \ll X\))£Y was insufficient to purchase the standard of appliances the family desired, and the family’s finances permitted them to spend up to £X
An additional room has been refurbished at the same time for convenienceThe family’s finances did not permit them to spend money on an additional room; no other room was in sufficient disrepair to warrant refurbishment
Appliance E from designer brand Z has been installedThe family did not require appliance E; or did not sufficiently benefit from purchasing it as a designer brand
Spend free time bargain-hunting as long as 1 hour of effort results in a saving of at least £50 (instead of £100)Family value their free time at over £50/hour, so this would be a non-optimal use of their free time (unless they enjoy bargain-hunting!)

The bargain-hunting non-goal is an example of where being explicit and up-front about non-goals is helpful: it will help the family to avoid sunk-cost thinking, and if the value they place on their free time changes (up or down) or is disagreed upon, they can re-evaluate this goal in a focused way.

Running a marathon

An athlete wishes to train for and complete the London Marathon in 4 months’ time. They require a reasonably substantial training regime in order to be physically fit enough to compete and achieve their desired race time.


  • Complete 4-5 practice runs per week with increasing baseline mileage week-over-week.
  • Complete one “long” practice run per week of increasing distance, up to a 20-mile practice run the week before the marathon.
  • Complete the London Marathon race in under 4 hours.


Non-goalWhy might this have been a non-goal?
Complete the London Marathon race in under 3.5 hours (instead of under 4 hours).Physical fitness, time to devote to training, or personal desire may not necessitate this more difficult goal.
Compete in a half-marathon event 4 weeks in advance of the marathon event.Unless the act of competing in the half-marathon is intrinsically valuable for the athlete, they should focus on whichever training regime best prepares them for the marathon.
Complete practice runs up to 26.2 miles long (instead of 20 miles long).Often the adrenaline and crowd support of race day are sufficient to keep the athlete going for those final 6 miles; the athlete may not want to risk injury from an overly-exhausting training regime.