In industrial work, we want to manage work for consistent, repeatable, predictable results. Industrial goals are best when they are specific and quantifiable.
But in knowledge work we need to manage for creativity – in effect, we don’t want predictability so much as breakthrough ideas, which are inherently unpredictable. For knowledge work we need our goals to be fuzzy. In any creative endeavor, the goal is not to incrementally improve on the past but to generate something new.
New, by definition, means “not seen before.” So if a team wants to truly create, there is simply no way to precisely define the goal in advance, because there are too many unknowns. Embarking on this kind of project is akin to a voyage of discovery: you may begin your journey by searching for a route to India, but you might find something completely different, but even more valuable. At the beginning of such a project, the unknowns outweigh the knowns, and the biggest problem is finding the right questions to ask.
In a paper titled Radical innovation: crossing boundaries with interdisciplinary teams, Cambridge researcher Alan Blackwell and colleagues identified something they called the “pole-star vision” as an essential element of successful innovation. A pole-star vision is one in which the goal “motivates the general direction of their work, without blinding the team to opportunities along the journey.” One leader described his approach as “sideways management.” Important factors identified by the Cambridge research team include the balance between focus and serendipity and coordinating team goals and the goals of individual collaborators.
A fuzzy goal straddles the space between two contradictory criteria: At one end of the spectrum is the clear, specific, quantifiable goal, such as 1,000 units or $1,000. At the other end is the goal that is so vague as to be, in practice, impossible to achieve; for example, peace on earth or a theory of everything. While these kinds of goals may be noble, and even theoretically achievable, they lack sufficient definition to focus the creative activity. Fuzzy goals must give a team a sense of direction and purpose while leaving team members free to follow their intuition.
What is the optimal level of fuzziness? To define a fuzzy goal you need a certain amount of ESP: Fuzzy goals are Emotional, Sensory and Progressive.
Emotional: Fuzzy goals must be aligned with people’s passion and energy for the project. It’s this passion and energy that gives creative projects their momentum, therefore fuzzy goals must have a compelling emotional component.
Sensory: The more tangible you can make a goal, the easier it is to share it with others. Sketches and crude physical models help to bring form to ideas that might otherwise be too vague to grasp. You may be able to visualize the goal itself, or you may be able to visualize an effect of the goal, such as a customer experience. Either way, before a goal can be shared it needs to be made explicit in some way.
Progressive: Fuzzy goals are not static; they change over time. This is because, when you begin to move toward a fuzzy goal, you don’t know what you don’t know. The process of moving toward the goal is also a learning process, sometimes called successive approximation. As the team learns, the goals may change, so it’s important to stop every once in awhile and look around. Fuzzy goals must be adjusted, and sometimes completely changed, based on what you learn as you go.
Innovative teams need to navigate ambiguous, uncertain and often complex information spaces. What is unknown usually far outweighs what is known. In many ways it’s a journey in the fog. The case studies haven’t been written yet and there are no examples of where it’s been done successfully before. Voyages of discovery involve greater risks and more failures along the way than other endeavors. But the rewards are worth it.
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