Fuzzy Goals

How do you set goals and targets when you want to innovate? And how does this change when you want to direct a team, and have only limited resources available? These are tricky questions which sometimes don’t even get airtime. Consider these two scenarios:

  • Scenario 1 “innovation is the new black”: the big boss has just come back from a conference and has decided that the firm simply has to innovate, so she issues a general instruction for all staff to be innovative and asks marketing to organise some prizes at the end of the month for the most innovative idea. Meetings are held, whiteboards are rolled out, and an online suggestion box is created. At the end of the month two movie vouchers are issued to Betty who came up with the idea of automating the holiday booking system.
  • Scenario 2 “find an innovative way to sell our cooler boxes to Eskimos”: another company head decides to get innovative. Since the firm is a distribution hub, and its top selling product is a cooler box the boss decides to break the Eskimo market. Teams are instructed to come up with an innovative way of selling cooler boxes into this market, and never mind about any other opportunities they might think of.

These scenarios are at both ends of the scale form a goal which is far too loose to be of any use whatsoever and a goal which rides blindfold through the land of opportunity. In Game Storming: a playbook for innovators, rule breakers, and changemakers, the authors suggest using fuzzy goals. Sitting somewhere in between our two scenarios these goals are designed to set the general direction and motivate the participants without blinding the team to the opportunities they might find along the way. Since we tend to innovate in an environment of great uncertainty, these features of good innovation goals are important:

  • Care Factor: goals must have an emotional component that makes people care about achieving them
  • Clarity: goals need to be easily communicated through prototypes, sketches, and stories (the book calls this one sensory as in ‘so real you can touch it’)
  • Changeable: goals need to evolve through progressive approximation (they get better as we find out more)

So where might we look for some examples of fuzzy goals in practice? Try the military. Actually a great source of some leading thinking and practice in innovation, the military are used to operating in uncertain environments with limited resources and well understood but incomplete goals. Whilst a goal might be to take control of an enemy position using only those resources you have now or find along the way, there may be a large amount of unknown and unpredictable information to deal with. Goals may change as enemy positions are discovered, and the entire rule book might get rewritten as diplomatic solutions are found which negate the need for battlefield activity.

A CONOPS document is used to define the concept of operations, including the general goals to be achieved and whatever is known about the problem space. Developed over time, the idea is to capture enough fuzzy goals to navigate successfully through an unpredictable problem space without ignoring new opportunities as they arise. Whilst they should have enough clarity and changeability to function, I wonder if there is a little too much detail for them to be clearly communicated or for them to develop enough focus on the care factor for non military application? Perhaps there is space for a simplified version for general use. A bit like transforming 20 years of business school theory into the single page business model canvas. Either way, they should be an interesting source for your next team innovation activity.

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