The Art of the Rolling Goal

Brass Tack Thinking - The Art of the Rolling GoalWhen the velocity of things changes, the art of setting goals and benchmarks needs to change with it.

There’s no one that would question that the pace has shifted around us, especially in business. We’ve never been moving faster, or in so many directions at once. We can debate the causes and the reasons for that momentum, but I can’t imagine anyone would debate its existence or our perception of same.

So why are we still planning goals as though they should never move? As if they’re static problems to be solved with a time-bound, incremental solution?

Set something at the beginning of the year, go through all the machinations over the months to keep it on course, check all the boxes and submit our status reports, see if we achieve it at the end of the year. Connect dot A to dot B. We’ve always done it this way, but it doesn’t completely fit how we work anymore, or the reality of how fluid and dynamic our careers, lives, and businesses are today.

As our work changes around us, we can’t foresee every factor that’s going to have an impact on what we’re doing. We won’t know how the circumstances will unfold before us, no matter how good we are at forecasting.

What we need is to embrace the art of rolling, iterative goals that can adapt with us as we progress. In their book Gamestorming,  Dave GraySunni Brown and James Macanufo call them “fuzzy goals”.

For me, it equates to applying a bit of the scientific method: formulating a hypothesis, and charting a course working on that basis along the way. So I may have an idea of where I’m headed, and I may have some milestones along my route that help me know whether I’m getting there. After all, if you’re bringing some people with you toward your goals, you do have to have some mutual ideas to rally around.

But the idea is that the destination itself can stay a bit flexible, depending on what I learn and experience as I go. And the path for getting there? We might chart out first steps, but we’re not going to map the entire journey. Much like a science experiment, based on what you learn as you tinker, you may reshape the conclusion or assumption itself, and you’ll most likely adjust your experimentation along the way.

Let’s take a look at what I mean, using a familiar example as a guide.

One goal I had last year was to publish a book in 2011. That’s a pretty cut and dried achievement; either you do it or you don’t. There are certainly factors that could have shaped that – my coauthor, my publisher, our ability to complete a manuscript on a deadline or execute a book tour – but for the most part, that’s a goal that’s pretty clear. So the path to the goal may have changed a bit depending on external factors, but ultimately the goal remained consistent over time.

More “fuzzy” would be the career development opportunities related to leveraging that book. My goal might start out to leverage the book to get paid speaking engagements. But what if it turns out that consulting is really the opportunity that presents itself instead of speaking? What if the book were to lead into a regular spot on a local business spot on the news? What if it led to “The NOW Revolution: a Musical!”, and there was a gold mine of opportunity there?

Just because I didn’t set those goals in my plan at the outset doesn’t mean they’re not valuable to incorporate later. And likewise, just because I set a particular goal at the outset doesn’t mean it’ll stay viable no matter what happens.

Goals need to be able to evolve or be replaced altogether. We often have more unknowns than absolutes when embarking on things that we haven’t done a million times before, so it’s really important to allow that both our destination and path to it can adapt to the information, experiences, knowledge and context that we gather as we move forward.

The age of the static, 12-month strategic plan is rapidly dying, and the age of the guiding framework is taking its place. If we have any hope of truly evolving into innovative, dynamic organizations (and individuals for that matter), and if we want to thrive on innovation and the ability to adapt in real time, we have to learn to maneuver and improvise within that framework rather than a definitive set of rules and steps that we lay out before the entire picture unfolds.

It’s the only thing that lets ideas – and a bit of serendipity – breathe and realize their true potential.

  • http://twitter.com/stevebellnow Steve Bell

    I very much liked this post. It got me thinking about why I kept reviewing the goals and the data monthly – and asking what is this truly telling me? Is this the right measurement? Why? What? I know I really did not want to always change things up, but when the evidence says it – you have to do it. 
    I remember getting into trouble in a formal review meeting when I pointed out that the data and goals were just not telling a story. I added that I thought part of the purpose of formal reviews were to make us challenge ourselves. Well, I found out that the leadership of that particular department was not willing to move as fast as the work we were doing. 

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Steve – interesting to consider, right? We get in our habits and sometimes don’t really know why we’re doing them anymore.

      And yeah, it’s sometimes hard to realize that you’re not on the same page as the people around you. In those cases you have two choices: undertake the work of trying to collaborate with them and arrive at consensus, or move elsewhere where it’s a better fit. I always try the first (we’re quick to blame others when change doesn’t happen), but have experienced the need for the latter, too.

  • Anonymous

    Amber… Great post, so true! And I am eagerly awaiting The NOW Revolution: The Musical: a Musical! Hope you play you and I’d like the opportunity to audition for the part of Jay Baer.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      You don’t want to hear me sing. But I’ll be sure and let you know when we hold a casting call. :)

  • Anonymous

    “The NOW Revolution: a Musical!”…now there’s some big, audacious, out-of-the-box thinking! You’ve got me re-thinking my goals now.

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