Separating Means from Ends

It is important to separate objectives into fundamental objectives (which reflect the ends we are trying to achieve) and means objectives (which are important ways of achieving them). For example, “minimize number of rare eagles illegally shot” may be an important objective, but primarily because it reduces the number of remaining rare eagles. “Minimize number of rare eagles illegally shot” is thus a means objective; “Minimize probability of extirpation of wild eagles” is the fundamental objective. Means objectives can lead you to good alternatives. Only fundamental objectives should be used to evaluate alternatives. If you include both, you are likely to double-count.

How to Separate Means and Ends

First, by asking “why?”. Consider for example, that a participant starts with a positional statement (e.g. “we should increase the reed coverage on the lake to 20%”). In the box below, the analyst simply repeatedly asks the question ‘why is that important?’ A fundamental objective is an objective for which the answer to “why is that important?” is, simply, “because it is” . Second, by constructing conceptual models that visually show the cause and effect relationships between “means” and “ends”. These come under a variety of names, such as “means-ends networks” or “influence diagrams”. These models can show how one means can be instrumental in affecting several ends, and as we shall see, it is helpful both for choosing good evaluation criteria, and for identifying creative alternatives.

The “Why” Game

“We should increase the reed coverage of the lake from 10% to 20%”

“Why is that important?”

“To provide habitat for dragonflies and other insects and to provide cover”

“Why is that important?”

“Because dragonflies are an important food source for fish, and the cover reduces predation”

“Why is that important?”

“Because we want to protect native fish from extirpation”

“Why is it that important?”

“Because — it just is!” (Fundamental objective reached)

Why Separate Means and Ends?

Means objectives usually correspond to positions, and anchoring on positions both limits creativity and hampers consensus-building. For example, in a wastewater management context, “Implement tertiary treatment facilities” is a means to the fundamental objective of “maximize receiving water quality”. However, focusing on tertiary treatment may misdirect energy away from other creative ways to improve water quality such as storm water management or treatment at source. In contrast, unless a firm policy decision (hopefully based on analysis) has already been made to adopt tertiary treatment, it is more useful to think of “tertiary treatment” as one alternative, that can be considered alone or in combination with other alternatives, as a means for improving the fundamental objective of “maximizing receiving water quality”. This raises the important point that the difference between means and ends depends on the context. What is a means in one decision may be an end in another.

The Why Game: Knowing When to Quit

If we continue with the why game far enough, we can go too far and set ourselves up with objectives that are impractical and do not suit the constraints of a given decision context. Take money for example. A typical objective is to minimize cost. In most cases, there is little value in pursuing the means objective of “minimize cost to the provincial government” down to its ultimate fundamental objective (e.g. maximizing the well-being of British Columbians). Similarly, if a previous analysis or decision process has established that (say) wetland habitat is critical for a species of interest, then it may be sufficient to set the fundamental objective as “maximize wetland habitat” rather than “maximize species x abundance”. See the section on “Proxies” though for some watch-out-fors in this case.

Key Ideas

  • A fundamental objective is an end that you are trying to achieve
  • A means objective is a way of achieving an end or fundamental objective
  • Focusing on ends rather than means helps find creative solutions to problems
  • Objectives only need to state the thing that matters, and what direction you’d like it to move