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Drawing a Blueprint for Success: Minimum Viable Goals

Part of the Building Your Engine of Improvement Series

Alright folks, it’s time to get down and dirty and break down those 10-year goals into digestible yummy chunks. In case you missed it, the last two post have been “Become a Visionary” and “Goals that Work” where we’ve started with the end in mind, building our vision and breaking it down into ten-year goals. Now we’re going to talk about the natural endpoint, the smallest possible goal you can have. The Minimum Viable Goal.

Going from 10 to 1

I’m assuming here I don’t have to babysit you (which, by the way, I am more than happy to do) in breaking down your 10-year goals into 5-year and 1-year goals, or 5–3–1 or however you’d like to split your goals up. It’s as simple as figuring out what you need to do every year to get 10% closer to your 10-year goal. The only thing I have to add, and the reason we have 1 year, 5 year and 10 year goals, is don’t assume a completely linear progression, i.e. DON’T assume a 10% increase every year. Assume it’s going to be much harder to go from 0–100 followers of your blog than it will be to go from 1,000–1,100.

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Types of Exponential Progress

As a rule of thumb, I tend to account for this by transposing expected progress onto some form of exponential. The graphs above show this quite well. Along the horizontal axis we have years 1–10 and on the vertical axis 0–100% progress. You can see with an exponential level of progress the start is slower than the end. On our less drastic graph on the left we have a 6% increase in year one and a 15% level of yearly increase by year 10. On the right, we see a more drastic version of this, with only 1% progress in the first year. The main point being, it is generally much harder to generate progress at a start of a project than at the end.

In our Oscar winner case, it is perhaps ambitious yet sensible to set a 10-year goals of 1 Oscar but a 20-year goal of 5, going from a rate of 1 Oscar/10years to 4 Oscars/10years — indicating with one Oscar in the bag the rest might be easier to come by. And we know this, right? An Oscar winner is much more likely to get their pick of roles and will have more freedom to actively seek out potential Oscar winning projects, certainly versus a newcomer.

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Walking on the moon is no cake-walk. Source: Pixabay

Likewise, astronaut pilots are typically selected from accomplished fighter pilots. It can take 10-years alone to become a fighter pilot, and more still to become a distinguished one. Yet with those achieved, being a part of the small pool from which governments (and now private companies) choose astronauts puts you in mighty good stead to be selected to venture into space within a matter of months, especially if you press the issue. If we want to do 10 space walks, it would be stupid of us to set the goal of 1 space walk every 2 years, if we’re assuming a 20-year span. All 10 of our space walks are much more likely to come in the last 5 years once we’re qualified to go into space.

This applies to most things, from generating social media followership to starting a restaurant. If we think we have to achieve 10% of our goal within the first year it is extremely likely we will become disheartened. Don’t fret, set your bar lower for year one. This is also important for generating our minimum viable goals.

Minimum Viable Goal

Once we have our 1-year goals we have a better idea of what we need to do daily to achieve it, which will put us on track to achieve that vision of success for ourselves. Enter our Minimum Viable Goal (MVG). This is the smallest possible thing we could do monthly/weekly/daily that will progress us towards our vision. For someone who by the end of the year wants to be selling 50 store items/week the MVG at the start of the year might be sell one item this week. We are now creating goal driven actions and we can prioritise what actions lead to the desired outcomes more effectively.

MVG is taken directly from the Agile Engineering approach of MVP — Minimum Viable Product. The whole idea is you create the simplest version of your product possible, as quickly as possible, to get early feedback on it. This in theory saves time building features nobody wants and enable you to double down on the things people care about. It applies equally well to goals.

Minimum

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Oaks grow from acorns — what is the smallest possible increment of progress you could make today? Source: Pixabay

The minimum part of MVG is what it says on the tin. This is the minimum standard of entry, the smallest possible increment that could make you better today than you were yesterday. In most cases some of our smallest goals might seem laughable. Thinking about quitting smoking and smoked 11 cigarettes yesterday? Smoke 10 today and do whatever you need to do to keep it at 10. Didn’t move at all this week? Just do one single walk next week. Wake up at 11am today? Wake up at 10:55am tomorrow.

This way of operating is to overcome several psychological phenomena, not least our tendency to fail, ignore or procrastinate when it comes to big undefined goals. As Harvard Psychologist, Amy Cuddy explains:

“A lot of research is showing us that we do much better when we focus on incremental change, on little bits of improvement.”

We see this every year with New Year’s resolutions, by February we’ve all but given up on those Gal Gadot abs we envisioned. Not only might the goal be unachievable in the timeframe you’ve set yourself, but you’ve also set such a high bar vs your previous levels of progress that we cannot sustain the work output, even if we were able to achieve it for a couple of days. This is all about making the entry point to achievement as small as possible such that it is virtually impossible for us to fail.

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You are your own minimum standard. Source: Pixabay

The minimum standard is also built on yourself, not another person. You have no idea where other people are in their own mind and what they do or have done in their past. For example, it might be fairly easy for someone who already runs once a week to start running three times a week. However, for you who hasn’t run once all year, it’s going to be a lot harder to achieve the same goal. You are the bar which sets the standard. If we’re talking daily, it is also useful to take an average of our previous daily actions rather than literally yesterday. We’ve all had days where we were super productive and we’ve all failed in trying to replicate it. The same goes for uncharacteristically bad days, we shouldn’t use those to set the minimum standard either, though they will factor in. Instead average out your last seven days, last few weeks and pick what the minimum standard is from that.

Minimum means small, easy and is based on your own standard.

Viable

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Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor did they dally in building it. Source: Pixabay

There are three tests for the viability of a goal:

One — It must be connected to your vision. Without the connection, your MVG will lose its importance and thus it will lose all meaning. Without being driven by a higher purpose an MGV is likely to fail or be forgotten about.

Two — It must produce a significant level of progress towards your 1/5/10 year goals. Short term goals are more easily measured against your 1-year goal. If you’re not going to hit your 1-year goal through achieving your MVG’s then they’re not viable. This is the main balancing act between minimum and viable.

Three — You currently possess the skills, resources and/or connections to achieve the MVG. Your MVG’s will be based in the here and now, whereas your longer-term visions needn’t. If you don’t have the skills to achieve the MVG then it is not an MVG by definition. The MVG would be related to acquiring the skills, the first MVG being along the lines of; “type the skill in the google search bar” — yes an MVG should be THAT small. Equally, it may be that your MVG is actually to delegate a task to someone else.

Minimum + Viable

Here, we have the great balancing act between minimum and viable. In the engineering world a Minimum Viable Product doesn’t mean hastily put something shoddy out into the market to see what people think — you won’t gain any meaningful insight that way and will only damage your brand. While truly being a minimal product, it must still meet the standards of viability and test a specific and narrow assumption (more on that later).

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Our MVG can be determined by the cross-over point between minimum and viable goals.

Our MVG’s must take a similar approach. The minimum standard might not always be the minimum viable standard. Let me explain. Eating 1 less calorie per week, might be a fun minimum goal. But by the end of the year we’re only eating 52 fewer calories per week than at the start. Say we want to lose 10kgs in a year, using the rule of thumb that 3,500kcal = 0.45kg of fat, we’d need to create a weekly caloric deficit of 1,500kcal or 200kcal/day. Highly achievable, yet clearly not the minimum: which wouldn’t get us anywhere close to where we need to be. Thus, we must make a judgement between minimum and viability.

Equally, if we write our MVG to be viable in relation to our yearly goals, and let’s say that means we’re supposed to be writing 1,000 words per day, on top of a career, relationships, kids etc, it’s likely our MVG’s are not minimum enough and therefore our 1-year goals are actually the thing which is not viable/realistic. If we choose to, we can send that feedback back up the chain and adjust our 1/5/10 year goals more realistic.

Making MVGs then becomes a battle between minimum and viable, or rather relative ease vs a challenge. This simplest measure of whether an MVG is too challenging or too easy is whether it fails, in which case we can readjust using more of the Agile methodology.

Agile Goal Development

Done is better than perfect. After nattering your ear off about MVG’s, there’s one major caveat. Don’t spend months coming up with your long-term or short-term goals. The best thing we can do with them is to put them into practice as soon as possible. We talked about this with vision, it can, will and probably should change as we try new things and our priorities change. We can do this with the Agile process, from which the term minimum viable product is derived.

Simplified diagram showing how agile development works
Simplified diagram showing how agile development works
Simplified diagram showing how agile development works.

We’ve already seen how simply by writing MVG’s down, we can come to the realisation our yearly goals might not be realistic. The same principle comes from putting them into practice. If we keep failing to achieve an MVG, instead of beating ourselves up, we should instead consider what is causing us to fail. Maybe for smokers it’s a trigger, so eliminating or building up resistance to the trigger might become the focus of the next MVG.

We might even specifically design MVG’s to test a hypothesis or an assumption. If we are a terrible afternoon snacker, instead of eating the sugary cakes for Sandra’s birthday in the office, what happens if you eat a bigger, healthier lunch (full of complex carbs, protein, and fats instead of refined sugar)? Your MVG could be to eat more at lunch and with some people it works. The process of designing MVG’s can lead you to some startling revelations.

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Supersize me up on cheat days! Source: Pixabay

If you want a real-world example, a good one is me discovering cheat-days. I don’t mean I have a cheeky pump of caramel in my coffee cheat day, I mean no-holds-barred dirty dirty cheat days where not only am I allowed to eat whatever I want, I purposefully eat as much of it as I can too. I went from a 2 month period with minimal fat loss, despite following a strict low-calorie diet, to an intense drop of the scale followed quickly by drops in my body measurements. I don’t even necessarily know all the science behind it, which is mixed at best when it comes to research papers, but through experimentation I know it works for me. For someone else it might be the worst thing they could do. Testing assumptions is a huge part of MVG’s, as is reviewing progress which we’ll come onto more in later articles.

In short, I rarely prescribe a failure down to a lack of motivation. There are many people desperate to lose fat, quit smoking or get out of a rut, yet, despite sound motivations, they continue to fail. Breaking the cycle involves a better analysis of what makes us fail and implementing corrections, rather than steeling ourselves, immediately getting back on the horse only to be bucked off again for the exact same reason as the first time. If your goal relies purely on motivation to complete it, it’s probably not a good goal.

Practical Application

This is my last section on developing your blueprint and goals. We’ve covered creating your vision, breaking that down into long term goals and then experimenting with our short-term goals. All of this is mostly a journaling exercise. I recommend taking some time to explore both what I’ve written here and seeking inspiration from other sources. Ask hard questions of yourself, be critical over what you write down. Remember though, after point it’s time to just get stuck in and see what happens.

Next, we will talk about your propulsion system, i.e. the things you do daily. It is plain to see these are going to be closely related to your MVGs. So, get to work on breaking down that vision and we’ll start putting it all into the real world. If you would like any further help on Designing your Blueprint get in touch, I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.

This article was written by Cameron Readman for Engineer Your Life and is part of the Engineer Your Life series of articles. If you’d like to know more or receive notifications for future articles, please head over to the Website and subscribe at the bottom of the page!

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