Self-Destruction thru Disparate Relativistic Goals

Have you ever tried to teach very young children? Have you ever tried to accomplish a seemingly simple, single goal by depending on very young children? Have you ever taken a group of four and five year old kids and attempted to teach them organized (football) soccer? I have. I failed. I'll elaborate.

During undergrad I volunteered to help run the athletics portion of a church program during the summer months out on the US Eastern seaboard. Sounded fun, would get to see another part of the US, and I thought I had a clue for such a simple task. Twas the night before my public humiliation, when all through the park, everyone but me knew my plans to teach organized soccer to four and five year old children would fail, likely even the mice. I had a single goal - to teach them field positions, strategy and to score points. As you can imagine, no one maintained position and everyone chased the ball en masse. For those who grew tired of being a single-celled organism chasing a ball, they found other more interesting things to do such as playing with grass, dirt, twigs and bugs. In the end, we fed my personal cache of chocolate and strawberry pop-tarts (that's all I could afford to feed myself that summer plus noodles) to ducks and geese on a nearby pond.

From the perspective of the children, the day started out weird because they couldn't relate to the initial goal and then ended up great because they could relate to the revisement. From the perspective of the staff, the day started off challenged because they didn't buy into the original goal and ended up great because they could buy into the value of the revisement. From the perspective of the leader, the day started out perplexing because he failed to recognize context and ended up great when he did.

Companies are like these four and five year old children.
  1. If the goal doesn't intuitively make sense, the group won't pursue it and does what it wants;
  2. If the goal takes too long to achieve, the group will get distracted and does what it wants; and/or
  3. If there is no goal, the group does what it wants.
Now apply this logic to circumstances and situations we've all seen in different companies through our careers. For those companies with leadership too far removed from the reality of the trenches, some goals make complete sense to the people writing them -- and are quite abstract and perhaps meaningless statements to most others. To bestow upon people ...
  1. All personnel shall exemplify the characteristics of a leader by displaying courtesy and professionalism at all times
  2. Company X will achieve its goals of N million dollars per quarter in annual revenue through innovative research and pursuit of technology
The first statement is relative to the reader as most people believe themselves courteous (I said most), and I imagine the same number of people view themselves as professional. So, the goal becomes a non-statement that requires no pursuit -- everyone likely believing they just need to be who they are and all will be fine. And the second statement is important to the executive team and stakeholders yet means nothing to the college fresh-out who is the first one to go to college in her family, just bought her first car, and is just happy to be here. Bad goals yield fractal teams and company. If the entire team cannot relate to the goal or understand how to contribute to the pursuit, they are then not equipped or enabled to live it personally or evangelize it to their team mates. To write goals using the SMART method of {specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based} is Effective Writing 101 - it still doesn't make them relatable.

And what about the company that has no goals? What gets pursued is relative to the situation, who has the most power, who is the most persuasive (sometimes confused with loudest) speaker in the room, or even which contract yields the greatest Day 1 revenue. Companies using relativism as their basis of goal-setting and subsequent decisioning have a limited time-horizon to self-destruction. At some point, relativism will spawn competing goals and internal efforts will be spent on internal self-reconciliation rather than corporate pursuits and being competitive in the marketplace.

Deliberate, purposeful commitment and pursuit of goals to which the masses can personally relate and internalize grows great companies.

In fact, when each person in the company, from bottom to top, understands the three top goals for the quarter AND how their work contributes to meeting those goals, we have SMART goals that a great company will not only pursue but achieve -- and then they will repeat the behavior again next quarter.

A company without declared goals may use such language as "we're too small to need anything formal" or "we just need to generate enough revenue to make payroll" or "I used to be a in a big company and I'm opposed to formality". All of these statements are emotion; none of them are empirical growth goals. Since I posit that whoever you are at home is who you are when you go to work (remember that whole 'software is social' hypothesis I continue to argue), I'll refer us to a song illustrating life for the point. In 1991, a US country western singer named Aaron Tippin, wrote a song titled, "You've Got to Stand for Something" that articulates what I consider to be the foundation of identity, both for people and companies:

[Chorus] He'd say you've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything
You've got to be your own man not a puppet on a string
Never compromise what's right and uphold your family name
You've got to stand for something, or you'll fall for anything

Now we might have been better off or owned a bigger house
If Daddy had done more givin' in or a little more backing down
But we always had plenty just living his advice
Whatever you do today you'll have to sleep with tonight


Artist: Aaron Tippin
Song: "You've Got to Stand for Something"
Album: "You've Got to Stand for Something"

I believe that companies, just like individuals, must not just have goals -- but rather they must have goals to which they can relate and therefore internalize; only then will they understand how to pursue and contribute to team accomplishment actions. The whole balanced scorecard logic coupled with SMART goal articulation is all well and fine... but since companies are individuals composing teams, they have to make sense to the people, not the composer alone. To have a goal is only one step above useless when companies/teams cannot believe in them, relate to them, or do not understand what it means to them. To have a goal that means something to everyone and that all members of the team can collaboratively pursue is success.

It is the responsibility of the individual to know what they stand for, believe in and want to become before he or she comes to work. And if this person does not yet know, he or she needs to figure it out. In parallel, it is the responsibility of the company to hire employees with personal goals parallel to the corporate goals so that symbiotic culture is fostered first through goal-setting, second through staff selection, and third through collaborative team pursuit.

With relatable goals that all intuitively understand and pursue, companies act as one and are setup to succeed incrementally, consistently across time. Without relatable goals that all intuitively understand and pursue, relativism rules -- and relativism spawns disparate commitments, individualism, egocentric heroism, fractal company pursuit, and inconsistent output, i.e. success.

Division within the ranks is more dangerous than solidarity of purpose.