We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. – Blaise Pascal
Jim Collins is the culprit of a concept; The BHAG [Big Hairy Audacious Goal]. It is the setting of a huge gnarly goal that is set ten or twenty years down the road…and, in theory, the entire company is expected to start paddling in the same direction toward it It turns out, that’s not the best approach.
According to Oliver Burkeman, in his book, The Antidote, “We tend to imagine that the special skill of an entrepreneur lies in having a powerfully original idea and then fighting to turn that vision into reality.” But in a relevant study, entrepreneurs rarely bore this out. Their long-term goal often remained a mystery to them. Overwhelmingly, a goals first approach in one direction was not the ultimate approach taken. I have to say this is quite a relief. I don’t necessarily need to know what my business should look like in 15 years. In fact, I think having a grandiose goal can make you start seeing myopically and suddenly you don’t realize that you are rowing towards a waterfall because you haven’t noticed the current.
A brilliant example in Oliver Burkeman’s book is the fateful day in May of 1996 when 8 climbers perished heading to the summit of Mount Everest. Burkeman posits that the deaths were not due to a storm on the mountain but that 34 climbers from three different groups, American, New Zealand and Taiwan were all headed to the summit at the same time. This caused a bottleneck on Hillary Step which was later referred to as “The Traffic Jam”. Three different parties were headed to the summit and had not arrived at the summit by 2 PM which is the ABSOLUTE latest you need to arrive at the summit before turning around and heading back down. There were climbers headed to the summit well after 3 PM. No one wanted to turn around and fail to achieve their BHAG. They had Summit Fever and eight of them paid with their lives.
So what are we supposed to do? How can we achieve with a manageable perspective? Here are some ideas:
1. Embrace. Embrace uncertainty. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So much of fear and anxiety is based on uncertainty. But guess what…there is only uncertainty. The more you strive to keep things constant, comfortable, certain, the more uncomfortable you will become; because you will ultimately enforce chaos. You cannot control the future. Even if you happen to be Warren Buffet or Bill Gates. There is no one with their finger on the switch. Businesses fail, accidents happen and deadlines get missed. Stuff happens and it’s not going to stop. Embrace it.
2. Horizon. Make sure you reign in your horizons. I heard an interesting speaker last week and he was pointing out that just some three years ago companies were making 5 year strategic plans…now it’s 6 months. No one can predict what will happen in 12 months let alone 5 years. Forward thinking innovative companies have given up on the 5 or 3 year strategic plan, there are just too many variables in the environment (i.e. innovation, hurricanes, terrorism, etc.) There is no crystal ball. Get through this quarter. Finish the semester. Run the first mile of the marathon. Shorten your horizon.
3. Correct. Make course corrections. Let go of the perfectionism that you planned on paying off your credit cards by 8/1 but you just needed to buy a new transmission. Move it out to 9/1…or 10/1. It’s OK. This happens with clients I coach all the time. In fact, I think every client I have ever coached has had to change something about their goals whether it was the date they wanted it complete, how they were measuring success or if the goal was even reasonable with the current economy. A sailboat doesn’t sail in a straight line, it criss crosses the water finding the most advantageous wind and finally ends up at its destination. Be open to course corrections.
4. Worst Case. What is the worst case scenario? Sometimes we get so wrapped up in trying to be optimistic that we fail to look at the worst case scenario. In the case of Mount Everest, obviously, death became an option. It’s healthy to look at the worst outcome, if at least, to allay your fears. So if you are giving a presentation, perhaps the worst that can happen is that the audience laughs at you and you are embarrassed. Painful but not life threatening. You fall short on revenue, so you need to dig into your savings. You don’t get your first choice job (or college, car, house, partner) there is always another option. Examining what can go wrong will help you move forward, forewarned and forearmed. Look at the worst case.
5. Goal Odyssey. Burkeman suggests that everyone on the mountain that fateful day was focusing their resources on the goal much like Homer in the Odyssey. There was no turning back, and every resource was used to achieve the goal. Leaders need to be open to information that runs counter to the end result. If we have an audacious goal for revenue but we have high turnover (employees leaving) or poor customer service ratings…we need to take a second look at the goal. We have to be open to changing the end result based on the feedback we get along the way. This also means we need to be open to feedback. If everyone is smiling and nodding…you probably aren’t receiving all the information you need. Make sure you have someone (spouse, assistant or co-worker) who is willing to speak up and let you know there aren’t enough oxygen bottles to make it to the top and back. Give up the goal odyssey.
6. Outcome. You need to let go of the outcome. My daughter has been in the middle of three different directions in her career this week. Two options involve moving back to North Carolina. The third involves staying in New York City in a job that is completely in alignment with her career goals. I have been struggling with uncertainty and letting go of the outcome for the last ten days. She, on the other hand, is completely open and flexible. The anticipation of the outcome is unbearable. I just need to sit back and let it happen. Whatever “it” is. Let it go. What will be will be. Let go of the outcome.
I’ve worked with leaders who were completely inflexible on the revenue or the cost of goods sold target. One of the caveats of any SMART goal is the “A” for attainable. If there are changes in the environment that make the goal unattainable…change it. There is nothing more demoralizing than not being able to attain the yearlong goal you are working on. It’s not motivating folks, it’s destroying their morale. Embrace uncertainty. It’s the new black.