Goals Are Good, but Adaptation Is Often Better
Eight years ago I worked next to a project designed to help insurance patients find local doctors based on street address.
At the same time, Google was launching a public API for its Google Maps product.
The insurance project’s lead programmer, whom I’ll call Ben, wanted to tie into the API and present a map, with pushpins you could click for images of the doctors and links for more information. Management said no, there was no budget for it. They were applying something psychology and organizational development professor Chrys Argyris calls single-loop learning. The programmer was doing double-loop learning: trying to figure out if the assumptions that funded the project were valid.
In the end the programmer implemented the API in his spare time, and the management team won a major award from the state health care association. A few people went to a big party and wore tuxedos. . . . I’m not sure if the programmer got an invitation.
In order to win that award, someone had to notice that the environment had changed and the assumptions under the project were incorrect.
You may wonder why I’m telling a story from eight years ago.
Last month United Business Media discontinued Dr. Dobb’s Online, the last vestige of the technology magazine that started in 1976. The editor, Andrew Binstock, wrote a touching farewell article explaining that, while website traffic had grown from eight million unique visitors in 2011 to 10.3 million in 2014, revenue had declined by nearly 70 percent in the same period.
I’d like to suggest a new term: Binstocked, meaning to achieve your original goals, even exceed them, but find that the goals either became irrelevant or the assumptions behind them were incorrect in the first place. The Lean Startup methods are all about overcoming that second risk by validating the market, but they don’t deal with the possibility of rapid change.
All that is especially important right now, when people are considering whether they accomplished last year’s goals and are setting goals for this year. Time after time, we’ll find we forget about the goals within a week or two, overwhelmed by the whirlwind—but that’s a different post. I’d like to talk about the cases when the goals become irrelevant.
The typical response to irrelevant goals is to look back, agree that stuff happened, and get that “meets expectations” review, which is OK, as far as it goes. This year, I’m suggesting double-loop learning: figuring out something better than the original goal and doing that, focusing on outcome, not compliance to plan.
Who knows? You might just get invited to a swanky party to get an award.
If don’t have a tuxedo or a formal dress, don’t worry. They are pretty cheap to rent.