Fuzzy goals

Fuzzy goals, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.

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.

I would appreciate your comments.

14 comments for “Fuzzy goals

  1. October 7, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Hmmm… this is interesting. I’m thinking of the people who are uncomfortable with fuzzy goals to consider what they might need to be useful. I think it’s mostly the tangible part, which you address with the ‘sensory’ aspect.

    Maybe a tangent but… when I see fuzzier goals (and I specially see them when branding and user experience focus is top of mind), they are often dismissed as lower level or a subset of the “real” clear/specific/quantifiable goal. They get categorized as design principles or guidelines to inform work, which I’m only pointing out because I don’t know what that means. Perhaps that’s our sneaky way of keeping those fuzzy goals around without fighting the battle for their legitimacy.

    One questions I have for you is, if fuzzy goals are progressive as you say, that is something they share with the other kind of goals, which by default makes them quantifiable/qualifiable, no?

  2. dgray
    October 7, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Maybe first we need to define what we mean by quantifiable. For me that means something that can be counted. In factory work that makes sense — we might set a goal of 1,000 units a day, and specify some level of quality, say, 1 defect per thousand.

    In creative work this model falls down. Let’s say I am a publisher and I’m asking you to write a novel. What I really care about is the number of people who buy the novel once it’s complete, but that’s not a goal, it’s a success metric which can only be measured after the fact, something I would call a lagging indicator.

    A more specific and easily measurable goal, such as the number of words in the novel, or the number of chapters, would be even more ridiculous as a measure of success.

    For a goal to be useful in performing the work it must help to guide the work. It must be a leading indicator. The real goal is to write something that’s compelling, interesting to readers, etc. — a great story. Since part of what makes a novel great is its “novelty” we have a goal that can’t be defined specifically in advance.

    In other words there is no way to know how close or far I am from the goal without finding a way to test it, for example with a prototype. This is where the progressive part comes in.

    If you talk to novelists about how they work, you will find a wide variety of approaches, but most of the approaches involve the writing of multiple drafts. As the work evolves over time, the author will ask various trusted people to read and comment on the work. The function of an editor, for example, is to represent the desires and concerns of the reader.

    Not sure if I am answering your question or not. Could you give me some examples of the different kinds of goals you encounter in your work?

  3. October 7, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    I have found my life is a balance of the fuzzy and the concise. I have learned to embrace both. I need to see and touch some goals while embracing others that are almost too big to define. Hard to explain to others. Love the drawings.

    Live Your Dreams,

    Jill Koenig

  4. October 7, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Dave, this is a lovely post.

    I’d love you to give a specific example of “knowledge work” because the rest of my comment is based on what I THINK you mean by that and if I’m wrong then I’m just broadcasting blahblahblah.

    “ESP” is an interesting and useful hook for your argument, but I think it’s worth exploring the three distinct relationships those adjectives have to fuzzy goals.

    Emotional: Yep, creative projects chasing fuzzy goals need momentum, and yes emotion is one way to create that momentum, but I don’t think it’s the ONLY way. Frequently, fuzzy goals breed visions of failure and a clear and likely scenario for failure is another extremely powerful catalyst for momentum. (Emotion is part of imminent failure, but there’s other major stuff going on in there at the same time.)

    Sensory: I think this is the mother lode of your argument. Often distilling fuzzy goals too much takes away the things that made them useful, right? Stimulating any of the five senses adds vital, complementary data and creates a big old pile of meaning without sacrificing the good parts of fuzzy. (I wish there was some kind of magical Play Doh like substance you could bring into a meeting room that cross-departmental teams could mold and use to define business concepts rather than using words. “Viola!” you’d say as you displayed your masterpiece, “Opportunity cost!”)

    Progressive: I think there’s more here than what you’ve presented. I’m going to suggest that goals aren’t fuzzy like a caterpillar; they are fuzzy like a far-off planet. Fuzzy goals change over time, but more specifically, they get less fuzzy as you get closer to them. As the team understands more and works towards solutions, the best fuzzy goals become something else, something clear and tangible. It may sound inefficient not to start with the tangible version, but I think what you’ve written about here is situations where the ONLY way to get to tangible success is to start with something that is just as fuzzy as it needs to be.

    As usual, you got my gears turning. Thanks for the post.

  5. dgray
    October 7, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for the comments! I’ll try to ellucidate a bit. In this context I am using knowledge work in exactly the sense you describe, where you’re embarking to some degree into the unknown. I guess you could substitute “creative work.” Examples might be the writing of a novel, or the design of a new piece of software, or the pursuit of something like artificial intelligence.

    I like your analogy of the trip toward a far-away planet and agree. When you begin, you don’t know everything, and most importantly, you don’t know what you don’t know. In fact you may find that on your way to the far-away planet you may find something even more valuable that your initial target. An example from real life would be the Xerox Palo Alto research center, who set out to develop a document management system and ended up inventing the personal computer.

    Which brings up another challenge of creative work: When you achieve your goal, or even something better than you anticipated, will you be able to recognize it?

    The role of fear is an interesting one. The Manhattan project and the space race are good examples of creative projects that were partially driven by fear — primarily the fear of others getting there first. Much of scientific discovery is driven by similar fears. But do the fears contribute significantly to the creative result?

    Fear can create a sense of urgency, it’s true. And fear can get you funding, when it’s shared by the powers that be. But there’s a pretty big chunk of brain research that says that fear tends to stifle creativity because it triggers the “flight-or-fight” response.

    My gut says there’s a level of fear that’s appropriate and helpful — something we could call “fun fear” — such as the fear you might have when playing a game; the fear of missing a deadline for example, or the fear of letting your team-mates down.

    Managing the emotion and setting deadlines are an art form that’s familiar to those who manage creative people. The deadlines need to be loose enough away to be realistic, frequent enough to keep the work on track, and tight enough to create a sense of urgency.

  6. October 7, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Great post, and so apt as a “meta”-phor for the book project. Even though it’s documented you are “driving your publisher crazy,” it’s a good kind of crazy for precisely the reasons you allude too.

    I find the hardest part is knowing how to move a fuzzy object forward. How do you pick up and move something that is hard to get a precise grasp on?

  7. October 7, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Can I double-dip on this one?

    I hear you on our Bald Ape Brains getting stifled by fear, but there’s also organizational fear going on here. I WANT the same thing to be true, that research would show that organizational fear stifles creativity, but my individual fear is that organizational fear makes the world go around. Even when the organization is a creative team.

    I still believe that the best leaders do what they can to protect their teams from this flavor of fear, but it frequently still creates momentum.

  8. October 7, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    I think your overall question is one that falls in the Complex Domain of knowledge as described in the Cynefin Framework. Perhaps achieving a fuzzy goal is as much about developing mutual understanding of the goal itself as it is in the achievement of the goal.

    Take a quick look at the visualization offered in the video included in that post to get a nice overview of the Cynefin Framework if aren’t already familiar with it. In my view, your points about the relevance of emotion, sensory, and progressive provide an interesting take on how to work, to do sense-making, within the Complex Domain of knowledge where patterns and non-linear relationships dominate thinking rather than explicit cause-effect relationships.


  9. dgray
    October 7, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Fuzzy goals certainly would fall into the complex and chaotic domains of this framework.

    I do think the purpose of fuzzy goals is to provide something to aim for when the conditions, as well as the goal, are not fully clear. In a complex world it’s rare that you can wait until you have all the details before acting. In military strategy they call it “the fog of war” — the uncertainties and unknowns that you are unaware of but will most definitely affect the outcome.

    And yes, developing a shared understanding of the goal is part of achieving it. Not only that, but it often needs to happen while the group is already in motion. The nature of fuzzy goals is that they may require almost continual adjustment, based on a continually improving understanding of the situation.

    I think it may have been Eisenhower who said “It’s important to have a plan, but it’s equally important to remember that nothing goes according to plan.”

  10. October 7, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    Is progression towards fuzzy goals progressive, or iterative? Progressive, to me, sounds almost linear, but the creative process – as you mention – is often working towards unexpected results. To use Dan’s thought of a far-away planet, it’s not just that it gets clearer as you get closer; it could also be that “it” is not a planet at all when you finally get there…but it is clear!

    I also wonder about this in the context of a team and what it means for an enterprise. A goal at each stage of work will be different – so in terms of your idea of knowledge games, do you mean the goal of the game, or the “end goal” of a string of games? (is that a knowledge olympics?)

    A useful model for thinking this through is on the MGTaylor website…the seven stages of the creative process:


    In thinking about your concept of knowledge games the other day, I came up with a few different dimensions – tactical, emotional and conceptual – which I posted here:


  11. dgray
    October 8, 2009 at 9:35 am

    I am sure that movement toward fuzzy goals is both iterative and progressive.

    Iterative, in the sense that cycles of inquiry, exploration and modeling will often be repeated over and over, edging closer and closer over time toward an imagined “finished state” which may never be completely reached (think software, where each new version improves upon the last).

    Progressive, in the sense of a series with a definite pattern of advance; progression toward a goal. I see the creative journey as very similar to a voyage of discovery or mountain-climbing expedition. Certainly you begin with a goal, but it’s necessarily a fuzzy goal because you can’t guess in advance what you’re going to encounter on the way.

    These kinds of journeys need to make frequent stops to assess the changing situation and adjust the goals based on what has been learned. I imagine a series of “base camps” where the goal is reassessed and the next stage sketched out.

    Yes there’s definitely a component at the game level and a larger one which I have been calling the metagame: the metagame might be putting a man on the moon, which would require a lot of games, iteration and progress to get to.

    The MGTaylor model is interesting but feels unnecessarily complex to me. Maybe it deserves further study.

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