Your 2017 Goals Might Be Missing Something

January always reminds me how goal-oriented our culture is. Everywhere we look there are cues to create a new year, a new you, a fresh start. What will we achieve? By when? How will we know 2017 is a success?

Once we have our goals, off we go. Culturally, we’re urged to keep the end in mind and to assume and expect success. While that approach may be admirable and even advisable, this outcome-orientation nudges us subtly into a mindset about control. What is the quickest, best and most efficient way to get to that goal? How can I minimize risks, surprises, and failures?

The downside to that achievement mindset is that it can overlook something key as it relates to empowerment, motivation, learning and even fun: the idea of experimentation.

The “One Right Way” to Get There

I’ve been giving this thought after recently revisiting some history about how we manage work.

The initial roots of management theory stem from Frederick Winslow Taylor, who published “The Principles of Scientific Management” back in the early 1900s. In brief, Taylor was interested in efficiency; he designed workplace experiments to determine optimal performance levels in factories. His published work promotes the idea that there is “one right way” to do something. He was focused on standardization, consistency, productivity, and efficiency. In 1900 factory life, his theories were golden.

As our work has evolved, it is much less suited to routine. We strive for innovation and collaboration and idea-generation. We want to avoid the status quo and embrace change. Leaders strive to be adaptable and apply situational leadership.

Quite simply – there is often no “one best way” to do much of what we do.

Yet, the need for consistency, predictability and efficiency still govern much of how we operate and lead. Be honest with yourself: aren’t there times when an employee does something differently than you would or differently than you think it should be done, and it makes you crazy?

Certainly there are types of work or projects where time, efficiency or consistency need to dominate. My question is: do they have to all the time? Can you isolate a few places where experimentation can come into play? 

Controlling vs Enrolling Employees

I think this could be a key to something that plagues nearly every leader I talk to at every level inside organizations: the struggle to find the right blend of empowerment, delegation, and management. Most leaders certainly don’t intend or aim for micromanagement and yet they often feel they have no choice.  The constant urgency and pressure under which leaders operate often overrules an honest desire to allow experimentation, which is what it feels like when stepping back and allowing others to make decisions or devise a path forward. There’s often no space or ability to even ask the question: “what might happen if we tried ________?”

Research has shown that when leaders are able to allow more autonomy and experimentation – and people can step up to that – is when both sides feel more fully enrolled in the work and in the outcomes.

“There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.” – R. Buckminster Fuller

Take a look at your 2017 goals and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Which goals have a “one best way” to get there?
  2. If there is a “one best way,” when did we last revisit that?
  3. Which has the most flexibility in how I / we achieve them? Or even, if we achieve them?
  4. What other measures matters this year? What do I/we want to learn how to do or learn about? What do we need to unlearn?
  5. What do I perceive as the differences between an experimental approach and an efficient / outcome-oriented approach? What’s the difference in mindset, in the emotions that are present, in motivation levels? (Hint: this is a great team conversation.)

Note: ensure you set appropriate expectations with your team about where it’s ok to experiment and where it isn’t. Again, be honest with yourself and with them about when you expect something to be done a certain way.

You can start small with experimentation, and you can still include accountability and oversight. It’s also good to identify ways you want to capture and learn from outcomes as you go. (Another great team conversation.)

I’m creating my own 2017 experiments. Let me know what you come up with!

Stay up to date with tips and reflections on leadership.

Subscribe to Feed