Blowing your nose in space

We all know that goal-setting is an important forerunner to improvement. And hard goals are supposed to be better than easy ones.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon,” said John F Kennedy in 1961.

The Americans met the deadline, although three astronauts died in a capsule fire in 1967 because of an untested escape process.

Big goals stretch our resources and make the adrenaline flow. We therefore become successful, faster. Or so the theory goes.

Alright, I’m going to grow my business by 15 percent each year and retire before I’m fifty. That’s a nice hard goal. Should help me get there.

Problematically, it doesn’t.

FOCUS ON PROCESS

Leaders are fond of thinking up quantitative goals, sometimes call performance goals. But the troops can do better when working for qualitative outcomes, often called learning goals.

There is a difference. Instead of saying “I’m going to reach the quarter-finals of Wimbledon this year”, it’s more effective to declare “I’m going to improve my best weapon, my backhand slice.”

Focus on the process, and the outcome will look after itself.

SMALL OR LARGE STEPS

Performance goals look attractive, because it’s simple to adjust the quantity in order to get the right degree of difficulty. If Wimbledon 2021 seems too hard, let’s aim for 2023. If 15 percent business growth is too tough, we’ll cut it back to 12.

Yet learning goals can be just as easily tweaked. One big step can be divided into two smaller steps, or vice versa. For now, the ambitious tennis player can aim for a great slice into just one side of the court.

It’s said that what can’t be measured can’t be managed. But a quantifiable goal (which looks great on a graph or spreadsheet) assumes a degree of control over the outcome that in practice often isn’t there.

The moon within nine years? How about scratching my nose in a spacesuit?

Photo by Fionn Claydon

 

The glitter behind the lockdown cloud

Every cloud is trimmed with gold braid – even lockdown.

  1. It reduces our range of activities. This hurts, but also allows us to focus. We can concentrate on two or three important areas, rather than six or seven.
  2. Normal activities often involve conflicts. For example, R&D and sales can be in opposition. If we can deliver on one of these we’ll achieve something.
  3. Stressed systems, such as hearing, nerves, or our livers are given a compulsory rest.
  4. Lockdown forces us to do old things in new ways, as many of the historic routines can’t be sustained. Often the new ways will be found to be better.
  5. Fewer resources means we have to do things more cheaply or simply. Some of these economies will survive the ending of the crisis.
  6. Inevitably, lockdown will put firms out of business and reduce competition. This is a grim fact. If you can survive, you’ll find a clearer field afterwards. The enterprises that were struggling in normal times will have folded.
  7. On that topic, Bill Gates has said that every business should aim to have a year’s reserves – in other words, be able to last 12 months without sales. Who the hell can do that? Still, you can see his point.

The 21st century Howard Hughes

I looked at a couple of movies recently about the mid-20th-century entrepreneur Howard Hughes. These were The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and The Amazing Howard Hughes, with Tommy Lee Jones.

Both movies told interesting stories, the first focusing on Hughes’s early years, the latter protraying his decline into eccentric old age.

What startled me was the similarity between him and our current rich visionary, Elon Musk.

Hughes made his pile selling drill parts during the Texas oil boom, then parlayed the cash into blockbuster movies, operating an airline (TWA) and making extravagant forays into aircraft design.

His six-engined Spruce Goose was at the time the largest aircraft ever built. It barely got off the ground and has been hangared ever since as an awkward reminder of Hughes’s overreach.

FATED TRAJECTORY? 

In a similar vein, Elon Musk got rich from the internet revolution, bought into the car company Tesla and has ambitions to be a space transport pioneer.

Both men had or are having trouble reining in their cashed-up dreams to keep pace with the reality of what they’re trying to achieve.

The Musk story is still unfolding, but how fascinating to see if the second half of the man’s life will mirror the fated trajectory of his forerunner.