Your 2018 plan – a contrarian view

Photo credit: Creative commons license

Photo credit: Creative commons license

Leadership Imperatives for complexity #6 – Create directional vectors for guidance

Do you have clear, specific goals for 2018? Maybe even SMART goals? That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? For much of what you need to accomplish this year, that’s probably good. And for some of your most important work, that kind of goals may be what my colleague Carolyn Coughlin calls “anti-helpful.”

What?!? Goals can be useless or worse? Yes, in complex situations.

You’re probably up to some big things this year -  solving a tough social problem, entering a new region with your product, redefining your business around a new opportunity, etc. For that stuff, it’s unlikely that things will be tidy and predictable. You’ll find yourself in the realm of complexity, not just very complicated but truly complex . When we’re working with complexity, it’s often more useful to think in terms of direction than destination.

Here’s an example. Let’s say your mission is to ensure that every kid in your city has an opportunity for a great education. This year, you want to keep doing the programs you know help AND you want to move the needle in ways that you know your current programs simply can’t do. You can describe that second part in general terms, but if you try to prematurely define the outcome as a SMART goal, it just won’t work. It may feel forced or artificial and it will likely close off creative options you can’t see yet.

Instead, you can paint the big picture – a big leap in our ability to ensure educational opportunities for all our kiddos. And you can describe some directional vectors – things you want more or less of. More willingness to make bold plays, less concern about what makes people comfortable, more experiments where we can’t predict what will happen, less guesswork and more data, etc.

It can be uncomfortable to acknowledge that our destination isn’t totally clear. Many of us feel that as leaders, it’s our job to announce a clear destination. But the more complex the situation is, the more we need to acknowledge what’s unknowable about the situation, including possibly our destination. The most effective leadership move in these situations is to acknowledge the questions that can’t be answered and clarify what we do know about the direction, letting go of our need to announce our destination.

For more on complexity, see my earlier posts in this series. Here’s the first one.

Learning in action:
Consider what you or your team most want to accomplish. Where can you be really clear about the outcome? Where is that unknowable? For the unknowable situations, are there general directions of movement that might move the ball forward?