Goals are stepping stones
George Mallory (1886-1924), a well known English mountaineer for his attempts to climb Mount Everest, said about his repeated attempts to conquer Everest: “You must know the end in order to win the end.” This is just as true of finding solutions in organizations. People must be helped to paint a clear picture of their desired future in order to reach that future.
Eliciting concrete and realistic goals are part and parcel of this clear picture.
From Problem to Solution
People often have a problem in describing their goals. There are many reasons for this. One of the main reasons is that they are stuck in the past of the problem. Most approaches to change have a problem-leading-to-solution sequence where the problem is analysed to determine the root causes before goals are set. We prefer to start with a clear description of what is wanted. We want to elicit a clear picture of the future as a safe place where people are the architects of their own destiny. We believe that solutions are not necessarily directly related to the problem and that solutions are of a different order than problems. In focusing on the preferred future we help people escape their stuckness in the problem and past and engage their imagination in creating a picture of the future without the problem. This helps to discover building blocks for formulating goals. What will be different? How will it be different? What will they notice as different? What would they do differently? What will others notice that is different? What will significant others do differently then? It is important to create this picture in terms of behaviour.
Where are we now?
Once a clear picture of the future emerges, we ask people to evaluate where they are now in relation to this desired future. What of this future is already present even if it is only in a very small way? Who did what then? Where and how did they do it? We want to elicit instances of the future in the present. It is always there but seldom noticed by people. Looking for exceptions to the problem and markers of the future gives us the opportunity to amplify and reinforce the differences that make a difference that can lead to a solution.
From these exceptions we help the people to formulate their own goals. Goals should be reasonable. Reasonable is not the same as realistic. People can change beyond our expectations and predictions. Reasonable is to be possible. Reasonable goals are build on the strengths and resources of people, doing more of what works already.
Goals as experiments
One of the biggest mistakes people can make in co-creating goals is to see goals as a final result. As human beings we live in living systems of complexity where, in a changing world with so many variables, the future can only be an emerging and unpredictable future. Goals should therefore be set as small experiential steps. Small steps have the added value that it is easier for people to do, they have more energy for it and it is a low risk experiment. If it does not work we can easily adapt and try something else without losing face. It is important to lower the bar of goals in such a way that people cannot but see it as reachable. Goals set as end results leave no room for adaptability in emerging circumstances and make people lose heart. As we are part of living systems small changes will inevitably lead to bigger changes.
Goals and their achievements provide a major theme for building stepping stones to the future. Without goals there is no contract and no way to measure progress. Without clear goals finding solutions in organizations remain in the realm of problem description and makes no sense.