Which matters more, the path or the goal?

goal “Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen. Few in pursuit of the goal.” Friedrich Nietzsche Why does that matter? Because as circumstances change, the path has to change. Your objective, your destination, remains the same, but the path you need to take to get there has to take account of unforeseen obstacles, newly-visible short cuts, etc. Obstinately pursuing the original path may lead you into unnecessary difficulties or delays, or even to somewhere different altogether. Of course that assumes that you knew where you were going in the first place. In my experience, often people are unwilling or even unable to define their goals really clearly. If you don't do that, all you have left to cling to is the path you have chosen - even when it is leading you to the wrong place! I’ve been told that, faced with an impending pile-up on the road in front of you, you are most likely to avoid it if you keep your eyes on the space you need to drive into, not on the car you are about to hit – but to do so is very hard! Similarly, being flexible enough to adapt the path you take through change, while keeping your eyes on the ultimate goal, is most likely to deliver what you wanted. Most of my work is concerned with 'soft' projects where the ability to flex when circumstances change is key. Nietsche captured the problem beautifully.

Castles in the air

selling a vision A few years ago, I spent a fascinating week travelling around Europe. I was trying to put together a consortium to bid for funding from an EU industrial research programme. I was selling a vision. It was one of those “if its Wednesday I must be in France” trips, where after a couple of days my brain’s language processor gets so confused it just gives up attempting anything except English. Fortunately (but as usual), my hosts all put me to shame by speaking excellent English to me. This trip taught me a very important lesson about selling a vision which I have used many times since. No organisation wants to be the first to commit to partnering when all they have is an outline description of the objectives of the partnership. They feel they need to know who else will be a part of it, and what the content of the programme will look like. Without this, they don’t even really want to share their ideas of what they might contribute or what benefits they might receive. On the other hand, until they do share their ideas it is impossible to put together a realistic programme. So where do you begin? I describe what I did as “Castles in the air”. Think of the project as a fairy-tale castle floating above the ground. You have to be able to describe in some detail what this castle looks like from a distance. Of course, no-one can actually get to it to look inside, so much of the detail does not need to be filled in, but the description has to be convincing enough that everyone believes it is a real castle, not an illusion. In particular, they must never think that there is nothing holding it up!

Selling a vision

Putting that into project terms, there has to be a clear vision of what the project could do, broadly who may be involved and how they will benefit, even though none of it is agreed, and you have to feel and sound confident about it, just in order to get people talking about how they might contribute. Once you can get possible contributors to engage, they will help you fill in the detail, adapt the vision and underpin it with the foundations, until the whole project is solid enough to stand up by itself. The same principles apply to any situation where you need to influence many different people to  win their support for the same idea. Unless you can describe your “castle in the air” with confidence, as though it were real and solid, it will be very difficult to get a hearing at all. The more people listen and contribute, even if they are not yet fully convinced, the easier it gets to win over others.

Can’t see it, won’t see it

Review of 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era by Nilofer Merchant social media strategy Perhaps surprisingly, given the title, Nilofer Merchant’s short book is not so much about the ‘how’ of social media, as the paradigm shift it has enabled in the way that most of the world does business. In the old days, ‘efficiency’ – doing things right – ruled. You made more money by having more efficient processes, and by having the scale to cover your high fixed costs easily. Large dominant players with efficient processes made it almost impossible for small companies to overcome the barriers to entry. In the past those approaches may also have been ‘effective’ – doing the right things – but the context has changed. In the new world, while scale and efficiency can be good strategies where there are low levels of innovation and change, the inherently cautious response of big, efficient organisations becomes a disadvantage: the ‘right things’ change too fast. High rates of innovation and change have become possible through the power of social media. Merchant says that a new approach is needed, based on embracing what social media enables, characterised by
  • Community: A far more flexible way of allocating work;
  • Creativity: Allowing co-creation of value with customers;
  • Connections: A more open approach than in the past to customer relationships.
Fundamentally this is based on treating employees and customers alike as respected and valued members of a community with a shared purpose. You may think that would be difficult and messy – but ‘soft’ issues often are. Provided that the organisation has a clear and well-understood purpose to align the activities of all participants automatically, this model can give the flexibility needed to win in a world where value can come from responsiveness as much as from scale, and where those who cannot adapt quickly to changing needs will be left behind. While this book is quite a dense read, it provides a compelling argument for the need for all organisations to have a social media strategy which does more than just try to bolt on a bit of social media activity to the existing model. As Ms Merchant sets out in her provocative opening chapter, Traditional Strategy (for many environments) is dead. Developing a Social Era strategy requires thinking again about the whole approach to doing business.

The law of unintended consequences strikes again!

recognition What approaches do you use to encourage the behaviour you want from employees? And do they have the effect you intended? Are you sure? When I was a very new manager, I remember being impressed by a retired site director of a multinational company, who told me how he had had a pad of gold-coloured paper stars printed, and how every time he heard of an employee who had done a particularly good piece of work, he would hand-write a thank you on a star and send it. People were proud to receive stars – some even had several pinned up where others could see them. They obviously valued the recognition. But he didn’t say anything about the people who didn’t receive gold stars.


Recognition is nice for the people who get recognised by such a scheme, but that is only ever going to be a minority – and they may well have been motivated to perform well regardless of the recognition. What about everyone else? Does it improve their performance, or lead to them feeling it is not worth bothering? Some schemes try to be more inclusive, but a recent study (http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6946.html) shows that, unless carefully designed, such an award scheme may actually demotivate good performers, while not necessarily having the expected effect on others. Good performers feel annoyed that now others will gain by doing what they had been doing all along without the benefit of the new reward, and those who are only motivated by the benefit act so as to get it with as little effort as possible. A lot of thought is needed to avoid unintended consequences. I have never had any stars printed. Instead, I have always tried to thank anyone who did a good piece of work for me personally, and to explain to them why I was impressed. Like most people, I'm sure I could and should do that more than I do. What happens? They can’t pin my words on the wall, and it may be that no-one else hears, but each time, I think the relationship becomes a little bit less formal, a little bit less boss and employee, a bit more personal and a little bit more trusting. I believe a good relationship is the most powerful reason why people try harder – and that that will never come from something like a company award scheme. But no, I can’t prove it!