This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers
As we discussed when we looked at the High Performance Cycle and goal setting, goals have momentum. In a more precise sense, success has momentum. When we are succeeding, we feel better about ourselves, our work, and the organization we are a part of. How we manage time plays a major role in our perceptions of success.
As we saw earlier in this chapter, when we feel rushed, our perceptions narrow. We don’t see things that are right in front of us. We will even miss things that matter deeply to us: when they felt rushed, our divinity students speaking on the Good Samaritan completely missed their opportunities to live up to the content of their talks. In business settings, people in a hurry will spend days, weeks, or sometimes months not noticing the solution that is staring them in the face.
Whenever we are running behind our schedules, we end up feeling rushed. Being behind schedule might trigger people to work hard, but they do so at the expense of working smart. When we are behind schedule, every minor problem becomes a major disaster. It’s just one more thing that is preventing us from hitting our deadlines and getting the job done! As a result, we tend to respond with quick fixes and overly simple solutions just to get the problem to go away. At one software company, when the product team was clearly not going to make the deadline, the director of engineering grudgingly allowed them another two weeks. They still weren’t ready, so he did it again. This proceeded for about three months! Half of each two week chunk was spent undoing the quick fixes they’d implemented in their frantic race to finish during the prior two weeks, and the other half was spent instituting a new set of quick fixes! The constant feeling of pressure meant that no one had time to think or consider any solution that took more than a few days to implement. In three months of being behind schedule, they probably made about one month worth of actual progress! Had they just extended the schedule by six weeks or two months right from the start, they would have finished a lot sooner.
Conversely, when a team is running ahead of schedule, people are much more energized and creative. The feeling that there is time available means that people feel they have more space to consider alternatives and look for lasting solutions to problems. Unexpected problems become challenges rather than disasters. When a team is ahead of schedule and team members work long hours because they are excited, they are choosing to put in that extra time. When the team is behind schedule, team members are often pushed to work long hours to try to catch up. The choice is no longer really theirs.
Fundamentally, being behind schedule means feeling that we don’t have control of the situation and our time. Being ahead of schedule means feeling that we do have control of the situation and our time. The more control we think we have, the more motivated and focused we are. Individuals and teams that feel in control work harder and produce higher quality results than those that feel that they don’t have control. Thus, a team that is ahead tends to pull further ahead and teams that are behind will often tend to fall further behind until the inevitable triaging of incomplete work allows them to declare themselves done.
Going back to the High Performance Cycle, when we complete goals with a burst of effort and blast across the finish line after being triumphantly ahead of the game, we feel a much greater sense of satisfaction and internal reward. The external rewards also tend to be greater in that situation. When we stagger across the finish line after completing the equivalent of the Bataan Death March, we just feel exhausted and relieved. Internal rewards are lower and satisfaction is lower. It’s the first case that really builds high performance.
Build schedules that you can beat with hard work. If you consistently finish with lots of time left, then your goals are not aggressive enough. If you are always falling behind, then you are too aggressive. Pay attention to the feedback that you are getting as you set deadlines and see if you are making them. It takes a certain amount of effort and practice to make your schedules appropriately challenging but not impossible, particularly because we tend to routinely underestimate the difficulty and time requirements of most tasks: just think about Boston’s Big Dig or that latest home remodeling task you still haven’t finished. Remember that you want to start with easy goals so you can experience early successes and quickly move out ahead of the schedule: that will set the tone for the entire project. Starting with success gets momentum on your side.
This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers
In chapter 9, we talked briefly about the time component of goals. Without a deadline, goals are not seen as particularly important. If we want a sense of urgency around our goals, we need to put a target date on them and we need to have check points along the way to monitor our progress. But if we become overly specific about scheduling every piece of the goal, we find ourselves back in a clock-based schedule, with all the hassle and headaches that entails. One of the problems with a lot of goals is that components are at least somewhat open-ended. It’s one thing to go out and run on the track for an hour; a software design project may not be at a logical halting point after an hour, making it extremely hard to stop and move to the next thing. Instead, we need to treat goals as events, and use events to trigger our goals. We do this by using implementation intentions.
Now, having read chapter 9, you might be thinking, “Are you nuts? Didn’t you just tell us that intentions are not useful?” Well, it’s certainly true that intentions are not goals and should not be confused with goals. However, properly constructed implementation intentions can help us accomplish our goals. Implementation intentions are a way of linking an arbitrary event to a piece of a goal, linking one piece of a goal to another piece, and linking one goal to another. We can even use implementation intentions to link a goal to a break and a particular leisure activity to a goal as a way of making sure that when we stop, we then start up again. One of the biggest advantages of implementation intentions structured into an event-based schedule is that it becomes very easy to develop the habit of executing the steps in order without having to decide what to do next. When we have to think about the next step, that’s when we become the most vulnerable to distraction. Implementation intentions become the metaphorical cotton in the ears that protect us from the siren song of Facebook and other common time sinks.
We’ve already seen how to construct an event-based schedule. To add implementation intentions, or action triggers, we say or note down on paper, “Once I pour my coffe, I will sit down at the computer” and “Once the computer boots up, I will open Chapter 10 and write,” and so forth. By making the connections explicit, we make them more powerful. We “know” exactly what to do when the appropriate trigger occurs. Writing out the schedule helps considerably, since it means we don’t have to actually remember as many things when we’re busy.
Implementation intentions can also be connected to triggers in our environment: “When the coffee cart comes around, I will close the file I’m working on and make the phone call to Bob,” or, “On Wednesday night after dinner I will review the design for the new Tate GPS.” The more specific the implementation intention, the better. Specific triggers are easier to activate. More general triggers are easier to delay: “After dinner, I will…” is more easily put off from dinner to dinner. Sometimes our implementation intentions are conditional or based on an ongoing experience: “Once I find my way home from wherever this stupid Tate GPS took me, I will fire the person who designed it!” (don’t be surprised; he who has a Tate’s is lost).
Any external event can trigger an implementation intention. The best events are those that require no effort on our part to notice. Thus, “When I look at my watch and see that the time is…” is not a good trigger. Looking at a watch requires us to make a conscious effort to remember to do that and then think about the time. It’s better to trigger off something automatic, like the lights dimming or changing color, the mail being delivered, or that annoying guy who never varies his schedule an iota walking by. Since we so often work in environments with artificial lighting, you do want to be careful about using “it’s getting dark outside” as a trigger, unless you can control the lights. Having the lights automatically clicking on is a good trigger, or having software on your computer that changes your screen brightness according to the position of the sun is another. Even reminders on your smartphone can be very effective, although they tend to be more useful when you want to transition activities at a very specific time.
Some people find it helpful to use objects as triggers: “when I see the Perkins file in the morning, I will…” Like having too many goals, too many such triggers will cause confusion rather than triggering the desired behavior. You don’t want to trigger five behaviors and then have to choose. You want one thing to trigger and then it triggers the next thing, and so on.
It’s worth noting that successful athletes use implementation intentions all the time. When a fencer trains to respond to different attacks by their opponent or a judo player to different throws, what they are doing is setting up a very rapid implementation intention. Teams do it as well, although that does take significant practice since several people’s responses must be coordinated. Some athletes will even use implementation intentions to decide ahead of time how they will feel if certain events take place in the competition: “If I find myself down on points, I will be energized, relaxed, and focused,” or, “If another runner passes me, I will imagine a rubber band pulling me forward and snapping me past him.” As silly as some of these intentions may sound, rehearsing them works. The event triggers the feeling or the action.
This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers
Perhaps the best definition of time is that it is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop us from trying to do everything at once! Even more unfortunately, this approach triggers that feeling of being rushed and reduces our ability to get things done. It helps, therefore, to view time as a framework within which we organize our tasks and plan out how to accomplish our goals. This means adopting more of an event-based view of time rather than the clock-based (or duration-based) view most of us are accustomed to. In this context, a schedule is a way of organizing and viewing time such that people and resources are in the right places at the right times and flowing from event to event.
What is an event-based view of time?
We are accustomed to scheduling ourselves based on the clock:
7:45 pre-meeting meeting
8:00am Project planning meeting
9:00 am Customer meeting
12:30 – 2:00 Work on presentation
2:00 – 4:00 Brainstorming meeting
And so forth through the day and week. We learned this in school and we do it at work. The problem, though, is that a lot of work needs to be done in ways that don’t always lend themselves to such precise structures and many activities are not always totally one hundred percent precise in their start and stop times. When you have to coordinate a great many people and resources, you need to have a more precise, structured approach to time: colleges, for example, have to manage student schedules, room utilization, professor availability, etc. But that structure comes with a lot of overhead, and is not always all that useful. While we don’t want to completely eliminate structured time, we also don’t want to be totally controlled by it.
A recent article in the NY Times discussed joint military training between the United States and Japan. When asked what the most difficult part of the training was, the Japanese commander commented that he was initally put off by the fact that the US Marines did not have a set schedule. Japanese military exercises are conducted with, “the precision of a Tokyo subway.” Eventually, the Japanese commander realized that the American troops had learned through real combat experience that things do not always, or often, go according to plan. Flexibility is essential. Rigidity leads to defeat.
This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers
Where oh where has my little week gone, where oh where has it gone?
It’s Thursday afternoon and that big project is due at 5pm. There’s no way you can finish it in the time you have available. No problem, you can just go to the time bank. All your life, people have been telling you that it’s important to save time. Well, just like you’ve put away money for a rainy day, you’ve saved quite a lot of time. Now you just need to withdraw some of that time and use it to finish the project.
What do you mean that didn’t work? When you save time, shouldn’t you be able to withdraw it when you need it? Unfortunately, that trick never works. Even Doctor Who, the main character of the popular British science-fiction series about a wandering Time Lord, can’t manage that one. That’s the problem with time: no matter how much we save, it’s never there when we go to make a withdrawal. We all get sixty seconds to a minute, sixty minutes to the hour, and 24 hours in a day. Time passes whether we use it or abuse it. The only choice we have is how we use the time, not whether we use it.
We have so many gadgets now for measuring time: clocks, watches, iPhones, the list goes on and on. But measuring time is not experiencing time: we have thermometers that tell us what the temperature is, but whether we feel warm or cold can depend on many factors other than just the number on that thermometer. 45 degrees in January can feel downright warm, and 55 in July might seem blessedly cool. Time is similar. Our experience of time passing is very different from what the measurement of time might tell us; this is why productivity and time are not the same! While we might measure time by the ticks of a clock or the dropping of grains of sand through an hourglass, we experience time as a series of events. When we have nothing to occupy our brains, time seems to stretch endlessly, each second ticking by with the excrutiating slowness of an overwritten sentence. Watching paint dry is so painful exactly because nothing much is happening. Conversely, when we are engaged in something that fills our brains, time seems to race by. When we look back, though, on a day filled with activity, it often seems like a very long time must have passed. Two people can experience the passage of time in the same situation very differently. Some athletes will view their opponents as moving very rapidly, while other athletes, who trained to manage their perceptions in ways that change their sense of time, will see their opponents apparently moving in slow motion. The second are far more likely to win.
What it boils down to is that we do not experience time or perceive time by the passage of seconds on our watches. We perceive time through the passage of external events: day and night, the waxing and waning of the moon, the changing of the seasons, and so forth. Those who have spent time in a windowless conference room or office may have noticed that feeling of disorientation that occurs when you step out at the end of the day and realize just how much time has passed: working for IBM in the late 1980s, in the winter months I would often arrive at the office before it was light and leave after dark. Spending the day in a windowless office meant that by the end of the day, I felt extremely confused about what time it actually was. Spending the day in an office dealing with a constant barrage of interrupts produces a similar disorienting effect.
At the same time, as it were, how we feel about time can change our perceptions of the world around us. In one classic experiment, divinity students about to give a talk on the Good Samaritan had their sense of time manipulated: while still in their dorm rooms, some of the students received a phone call stating, “Where are you? You were supposed to be in the chapel five minutes ago!” Other students received a phone call stating, “Although we have plenty of time, we’d like everyone in the chapel a few minutes early.”
On the route between the dorm and the chapel was an apparently sick or injured person. Those divinity students who thought they were late went by that person, in many cases without even noticing him lying there. Those who did notice assumed that someone else would take care of it or figured that maybe the person wasn’t that sick, or something. Conversely, those divinity students who thought they had plenty of time were far more likely to notice the sick person and take appropriate action. Feeling rushed reduces our ability to see the world.
Just as our perceptions of time influence our behavior and how effectively we work, pursue goals, and interact with others, the physical space we are in matters as well. Space creates associations and triggers for our behavior; the right space can make us feel safe or in danger, critical or creative. The same space at different times can also trigger different reactions. Fundamentally, we humans are creatures of our environment. We can’t completely ignore our surroundings when looking at organizational psychology and behavior. Rather, we need to understand how space matters and how our interactions with the space around us can serve to reinforce or undermine our organizational culture, narrative, learning, motivation, perceptions of fairness and justice, and goal setting. Even our perceptions of leadership can be affected by how space and time are handled.
This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.
I often hear the argument made that the effort involved in effective goal setting is really unnecessary so long as people just “do their best.”
The problem with “do your best” is that “your best” is an arbitrary term. There is no real way to measure it or even know when you’ve arrived. Each person has their own view of what “best” means. Thus, I’ve often heard managers telling employees, “You call this your best work? This is terrible!” Of course, this “feedback” is of absolutely no value as it fails to provide the person with any information that she can use to change or improve her work. Conversely, I’ve also seen many an engineer respond to a deadline by saying to their increasingly frustrated managers, “But it’s not done yet. It could be better!”
For an organization, “do your best” lacks any coherent focus or vision. It produces muddied priorities instead of a common objective. Common goals help bring teams together and provide a means to adjust course when something doesn’t work as expected; “do your best” is more likely to produce argument and blame when the team runs into an unexpected problem. In a “do your best” environment, clearly failure is the result of someone not “doing their best!” Everyone should just “try harder!” This is a sure recipe for overwork, exhaustion, burnout, and low productivity. Of course, since everyone is busy running around in circles frantically trying to “try harder” and “do their best,” it looks like a lot is getting done: remember that motion does not equal progress. Accomplishing goals equals progress.
The whole point of goals is that they give us a way to decompose a task into logical pieces, organize those pieces, and attack them in a systematic fashion. Goals provide us feedback so that we know how far we’ve come, how much is left to do, and when we’ve arrived at our destination. “Do your best” does none of these things. Overall, people, and businesses, with clear goals out-perform those who are simply attempting to do their best roughly 99.9% of the time. But, since autonomy is an important motivating factor, you should feel free to bet against those odds if you really want to.
This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.
I have to confess to being very tired of the old aphorism, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Planning to fail is actually a worthwhile exercise, while failing to plan is simply a good way to waste time and energy without any benefit at the end. Failure is a surprisingly useful tool, at least for those who are not afraid to use it.
Seeing how your plan is failing can give you vital information on how to shift focus, allocate resources, and generally adjust your strategy. On a more subtle level, we won’t fully trust a plan that fails to consider failure: we need to have confidence that our plans or our feedback systems will alert us to something going wrong in order for us to believe it when things are going right. I’ve frequently seen companies abandon working plans simply because they had never determined how they’d know if something was going wrong and therefore concluded that something must be going wrong no matter how much evidence they had that their plans were working!
More broadly, though, the difficulty is often a misunderstanding of what it means to plan. I’ve worked for companies that tried to plan projects out 2-3 or more years. While this is possible in a very broad sense, details matter, and you can’t plan details that far in advance. Instead, you have to plan the steps in front of you. Part of the plan is to pause periodically and review the plan. What worked? What didn’t work? What are the next steps? Developing an effective strategy is not something you do once and then execute blindly; you have to constantly adjust as circumstances change. The beginning chess player tries to play out a sequence of moves and is paralyzed when the opponent doesn’t respond as expected; the chess master has a plan and constantly adjusts his strategy in response to his opponent. You need to plan far enough, but not too far: This may sound like it contradicts the concept of reverse goal chaining; not at all. It is simply the case that the more distal steps are going to be vague until you get close enough to see the details. Good strategy requires a certain comfort with ambiguity and the ability to periodically evaluate, adjust, and adapt any plan.
Interestingly enough, the beginning chess player usually can’t explain his plan, while the master can. The beginner’s plan sounds like, “I have a plan: I’ll do this, and this, and this, and that’s how I’ll win.” The chess master, on the other hand, is likely to treat you to a detailed discussion of his thinking processes and chess strategy. The first is easy to say and easy to listen to, but is fundamentally useless. The second is hard to articulate and takes a lot of effort to follow, but actually does have a chance of working. Part of the reason it works is that the chess master has contingencies built into his strategy: he’s already considering that his opponent might do something unexpected and is mentally prepared to handle that. The beginner, by assuming that each step simply needs to be executed in the proper sequence, is locking himself into a rigid mindset. Chess strategy or business strategy, the results are same.
Fundamentally, failure is a form of feedback. In fact, this is exactly what you want failure to be: a means of testing out different strategies and figuring out which ones work best. Used this way, failure can be very helpful. Indeed, without such productive failures learning and strategy development is impossible.
However, sometimes the cost of failure can be somewhat higher. If Billy’s goal is to cross the street safely 75% of the time, what about the other 25%? Even if we raise the expectation to 99%, that one failure can negate all the successes: getting hit by a car can ruin your whole day.
It’s all too easy to confuse the two types of failures and businesses do it all the time. They are afraid to fail when that failure would give them valuable information and they take risks that sound good but where one slip causes you to lose everything.
How do we tell the two types of failure apart?
“Author Stephen Balzac has written a terrific book that gets into the realpolitik of organizational psychology – the underlying patterns of behavior that create the all important company culture. He doesn’t stop at the surface level, explaining things we already know like ‘culture beats strategy’ – he gets into the deeper drivers and ties everything back to specific, actionable stories. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to participate in creating and steering company culture.”
Chief Technology Officer
Attivio – Active Intelligence
Dr. Robert Sternberg, a well-known psychologist and, quite frankly, an absolutely brilliant scientist, just managed to get tangled up in the University of Wyoming’s cultural immune response. He’s hardly the first person who has been caught up in such a reaction, although his case is certainly dramatic: he ended up resigning after barely four months as the president of the university.
At root, it’s pretty straight-forward: when the human immune system sees something that doesn’t fit, that triggers an immune response and the body attempts to repel the invader. At an organizational level, when someone enters the organization and does not fit with the culture, that person is seen as an invader. The organizational system mobilizes to fight off the invader. If the person entering the organization is a relatively low-level employee, it’s no big deal. The person either changes to match the culture, they leave, or they are fired. The overall culture barely, as it were, sneezes.
The situation is considerably more complex when the person triggering the response is the new president of, say, a university. As I wrote in Organizational Development:
Remember that culture is a roadmap of how the world works. The longer that culture has been in place, the more successful the organization has been, and the more people like the way things are working and are happy with the current situation, the stronger the culture will be. The stronger the culture, the more the roadmap is trusted. The more the roadmap is trusted, the harder it is to change.
When a new leader comes in who does not match with the culture, problems will immediately arise. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking a group leader or a CEO, although in general the smaller the group, the weaker the culture simply because it is not distributed over as many people. What the new leader is effectively doing is saying, “Everything you know, everything you believe in, is wrong. Trust me. Follow me. I have the truth.”
Now, I suspect that many of you reading that last paragraph are rolling your eyes and thinking, “Yeah, right. It can’t be that big a deal!”
Let’s consider the situation. For the members of the culture, this roadmap, this view of the world, is their common bond. It’s the thing that holds the organization together. By providing structure and predictability, culture reduces anxiety and promotes a feeling of security. Remember also that culture quickly becomes largely unconscious. Behaviors are chunked, no longer thought about on a conscious level.
Then someone comes along and says, “No, no, that’s all wrong.” Imagine being in that position. How would you feel? How did you feel the last time your company announced major changes or restructuring?
In Sternberg’s case, it looks like he tried to do too much too fast without taking the time to build relationships and become part of the specific university culture. By way of contrast, when IBM brought in Lou Gerstner in the early 1990s, Gerstner rapidly made himself part of the IBM culture while still standing partially outside it. While part of this may have been luck in that his background was very similar to that of IBM founder Tom Watson, Gerstner’s taking the time to build connections and visibly recognize and respect the existing culture before he changed it was also a key factor.
I’m not going to attempt a detailed analysis of Sternberg’s actions at the University of Wyoming, particularly since all that I have to go on at this point is the relatively superficial reporting of the events. Organizational change, particularly when it involves a cultural change, is a tricky business; the fact that someone as psychologically savvy as Robert Sternberg got tripped up by it only serves to underscore that point.
Ultimately, change is hard. For the University of Wyoming, having just successfully exiled one leader who attempted to make changes, it just got that much harder. The immune system is now on heightened alert. So, if you’re trying to make a major change in your organization, think carefully about how you can avoid triggering that cultural immune response.
My son is eight years old. Like a lot of kids his age, he’s into baseball and plays in the kids’ Little League every spring. Watching a bunch of little kids playing baseball can be very entertaining. When someone on the other team scores a hit, most of the kids go chasing after the ball. When one of the kids finally catches up to it, they’ll usually throw it in the general direction of first base. Unfortunately, this is of limited use since the first baseman is usually part of the crowd that’s chasing the ball. That’s actually not a problem, however, since the two teams tend to pretty well matched in skills. In other words, having hit the ball, the runner might go the wrong direction, lap another runner, or forget to bear left at the base: he, and it is usually he, just keeps running in a straight line, sometimes into the game taking place on the next field over.
There are lessons to be learned from this. No, it’s not that the typical employee acts like an eight year old. Why would you think that?
What we can learn are some important lessons about workplace behavior. What we’re seeing with the kids is that they don’t really understand how baseball works. Sure, the rules were explained to them. As simple as they may seem to us today, to an eight year old, they are confusing. Perhaps more to the point, without context they are relatively meaningless. What does it mean to “round a base?” How about “steal a base and run home?” In one of my daughter’s favorite stories, Amelia Bedelia took that advice extremely literally: she gathered up each base and ran off the field and back home.
So how does this tie in to office behavior?
Structured goal setting is one of the most effective means of creating a productive work force. Despite this fact, it quite frequently fails to work. Goals are set but they are not successfully accomplished. The problem is one of context: just as the rules of baseball don’t initially make much sense to eight year olds because they lack sufficient context, so too do goals often lack context for newer employees, or on new projects, or when someone is on a new team, or when the team has a new manager. The more “new” in the mix, the greater the probability that the goals will be confusing. Moreover, most people won’t want to admit that they don’t really understand their goals. Indeed, the more the organization views asking for help as a sign of weakness, the less likely people will ask questions when their goals don’t make sense. Even when the organization doesn’t have that little problem, it can still be difficult to get people to ask questions. Therefore, as a manager, you might have to have some questions prepared so that you can prime the metaphorical pump.
Another issue is recognizing something those kids do not: baseball is about playing your position. The second baseman doesn’t go running off randomly. He stays at second and waits for the ball to come to him, rather than running after the ball and slamming into the outfielder who is also trying to catch that ball. When that happens, rather than hitting a glove, the ball hits the ground. A big part of what makes a team member dependable is that they are where they should be when they should be there. When they are not, the system breaks down. We examples of that on both sides in the World Series. The Sox won in the end in large part because they were better at being where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there.
Similarly, in an office, people need to know what they are supposed to be doing and, to a lesser extent, not doing. For example, in software development, it’s not uncommon for a problem in one part of the code to trigger an “all hands on deck” callout. Everyone is expected to help solve the problem, whether they have anything to do with that piece of the code or not. Sure, it can be tempting to call everyone out to solve the problem, but in reality the people who know that part of the system best are the ones you want to have working on it. Adding unnecessary people to the mix only risks a metaphorical collision and a dropped ball.
Unfortunately, if you reward people for chasing the ball instead of playing their position, pretty soon you’ll have an entire team that goes chasing after every ball. The net result is that no one will be in the right spot at the right time, and your team will waste a lot of time and energy. It will also generate a lot of headaches. It can be difficult to not respond to every ball that goes by, but sometimes that’s what it takes.
In the end, baseball is about learning the context in which the rules and goals make sense and playing your position. The office is really not all that different.
This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.
I’ve mentioned several times the concept of creating subgoals and how large goals generate a great many smaller goals. This process is known as goal decomposition. Goal decomposition is critical if we’re going to accomplish anything large or significant: a black belt in a martial art, a college degree, shipping a product, building an innovative organization, or implementing successful organizational change, are all large goals that must be broken down into pieces in order to have any reasonable chances of success.
When breaking goals down, it helps considerably to start at the end and work backward to the starting point, rather than work forward from the starting point to where you want to go. Working backward, a technique known as reverse goal chaining, does two things:
First, working backward creates implicit agreement for each step. As you define a step, it’s clear how that step moves you forward; after all, you just stepped backward to define the step! If you can’t see how to move forward from a given step, that alerts you that you’re taking too big a step. You can address that issue immediately, or at least put in a goal that when you get to point X you need to evaluate how to move to point Y. Because you are working backward, the logical progression is easier to see and there is less debate about whether that step will get you where you want to go. Instead, the implicit agreement that you’re building makes it easier to generate overall agreement to the entire goal chain; this is extremely valuable when you need to convince your team to buy in to the goals! People are more likely to listen with an open mind instead of arguing the validity of each step in the process.
Second, reverse goal chaining is a very elegant way to transform your goals into a well thought-out strategy for accomplishing those goals. Strategy is, in a very real sense, the art of looking to your end point and then reasoning backward. As you work your way backward, insetad of fighting over the validity of the step, you can instead consider how each step influences or changes the world around you and how those affected by your actions might respond. In what way might a competitor react to your actions? How can you anticipate and prevent that? A chess master builds his strategy often at an almost unconscious level, but they do work backward. They are then playing toward various board positions that they know will move them to victory. Intervening board positions are the subgoals along the way to the final board position. At the same time, the other player is seeing and responding to each move, potentially forcing the strategy to evolve and adjust. Fencers do the same thing, leading their opponents into patterns of moves so that the opponent becomes predictable. Smart businesses try to force their competitors into untenable positions as well.
As you work your goals backward, you also need to address the question of close and distant deadlines. Technically speaking, we are looking at Proximal Goals and Distal Goals.
Proximal goals are the goals that are right in front of us. Those are the goals we are doing today.
Distal goals are further off in time. Those are the goals we are working toward tomorrow.
Proximal goals build upon one another to bring us to our more distal goals. At any given moment, our proximal goals tend to be the most relevant since, after all, they have the most immediate deadlines. Sometimes, though, a proximal goal is just not that interesting or personally relevant by itself. In that case, our distal goals help remind us of the importance of those proximal goals: the proximal goal of practicing falling feeds the more distal goal of learning to throw, which feeds the goal of passing a belt test, which feeds the goal of learning the next set of techniques toward the ultimate goal of a black belt. Even a student who doesn’t much care to practice falls will still do so if they value that end point sufficiently. Because the path to the end point is broken down and visible, it’s easier to imagine achieving it.
When a business tells me that their employees have no sense of urgency, one of the first things I look at is how they’ve broken down their goals: are milestones all big and distant? Quite frequently, the problem is that the goals, and rewards, are all distal and there are no proximal goals to get people started.
Balzac combines stories of jujitsu, wheat, gorillas, and the Lord of the Rings with very practical advice and hands-on exercises aimed at anyone who cares about management, leadership, and culture.