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The Difference Between Managing the Process and Managing the Goals

November 30, 2022 | 3 Minute Read

I recently reflected on why so many managers, leaders, and even Scrum Masters struggle in their roles. Then it hit me. We struggle with managing the process AND managing the goal.

What does this look like? 

On a recent vacation, my father-in-law needed the rental car returned by 5 pm with a full tank of gas. Simple enough, right? Except he managed the process to achieve that goal.   

Here’s what that scenario looked like: 

Instead of stating, “return the car by 5 pm full of gas,” he told us to leave with the car at 10 am, go shopping or sightseeing, go get gas several miles from the airport because it will cost less, then enter the airport using the back entrance to get to the rental place faster and talk to Bob once you’re there. 

This result was confusing and left us unsure of what we should really be focusing on with the ask.

Blog Photo by Alex Jumper on Unsplash

We do this with our teams all the time. We try to manage the goal by managing the process. Have you ever heard part of the business ask for a feature by describing how they would build it? Maybe you have a Scrum Master try to explain what we are trying to achieve while explaining the process flow. These are daily situations that leave teams (and their leaders) frustrated and confused. It comes down to who should be managing the goals, and who should be managing the process. 

In leadership, it’s important to facilitate goal setting. Leaders should reflect on their ideal future state and their end client. Leaders have the responsibility for gaining insight, understanding the nuances and intricacies of the ask, and building the vision. Some of the best leaders I know can do this easily, and what makes them good leaders is that they give that to their team without caveat. 

When leaders start to manage the process, they become the dreaded micromanager. This often leads to a lack of creativity and ultimately, confusion. Think of the leaders who focus so much on the “how” that they lose sight of the “why.”   

In my experience as a department leader, I’ve had to reflect on how I ask my team to achieve these goals. Changing my own language has helped me reflect on this. No longer will I ask questions about how we will get to our result.  Instead, conversations are focused on why teams are making the decisions they are making. Asking questions like “tell me about how that decision will impact our goal” is far more powerful than “tell me how this follows the process to get there.” This involves trust in the team and an understanding that they are experts in their field. 

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Conversely, I take a very different approach as a Scrum Master. In that role, my job is to ensure the processes in place are facilitating the goals of the team. Scrum Masters should focus on what the team is doing, removing blockers, and refining how the work progresses to allow them to achieve the goals set by leadership. Their job is not to manage the goals provided, but to facilitate an environment in which the work can occur. 

This select process is not binary. Leaders will need to facilitate processes as well, and Scrum Masters help keep goals focused. Often roles are not clearly defined, and in some cases, people need to manage both expectations.  However, it's important to remember what you are trying to achieve. 

Next time a team is struggling to deliver, or you find that goals are not being met before looking to the team, reflect on the ask. Are you managing goals, processes, or both? You may find that in trying to do everything, you are achieving nothing. Take a moment to step back and focus on what you can control and trust your team to deliver.   

To get more advice on leadership and Scrum, reach out! You can also learn more by joining one of our Scrum training courses


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