What if the best way to accomplish a goal was to not have one or to keep it changing? That’s innovation.
If you tightly define what you want, and succeed, all you get is exactly what you expected. You are limited by your own goal. – Robert Poynton
I was recently speaking with one of my oldest and dearest friends about goal setting and innovation. Geoff Wilson knows a lot about how to innovate. In addition to being an award-winning sales leader in technology and financial services, he’s is the founder, producer, and host of multiple popular web-series focused on the lives of those who practice professional MMA (mixed-martial arts). His shows, supported by the marketing and production skills of Kelly Marce, are unlike anything out there.
These shows were also developed without a goal.
Rather than focus on the specifics of the sport, Geoff focuses on what the athlete brings into the ring — their upbringing, their roles as parents and children, their motivations, coaches, and even their walk-out music (MyFortay, for example, is all about this last part). Whether it’s speaking with the biggest names in the sport or a fighter just starting out, Geoff looks at the way music, culture, and family come together in a domain foreign to many of us.
Geoff told me that it was his distinctive lack of a goal that contributed to why he’s been able to produce what he does. That fact of not having a goal — or having one that evolves as things develop — is at the heart of innovation and dispels one of the greatest myths and misconceptions about what it means to create and deliver unique value. It’s not as much about goals, it’s about the goalposts.
The Setting of Goals
“A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.” – Bruce Lee
Goal setting is like giving someone a hammer so they can go hunting for nails. However, before dismissing goals it’s worth noting that there are systems and problem domains where goal-setting is appropriate. Technical domains where there is something akin to best practice — those operating in simple or complicated systems where there is a clear link between cause-and-effect are where goals are useful. Sometimes we need to blend domains where goals make sense (those simple/complicated) with those that are more complex.
For example, with MyFortay many of the critical technical parts of the production that Kelly Marce is responsible for are amenable to goal setting (e.g., production dates, video edits). These are important and necessary, but they aren’t the innovation itself, rather they enable the innovation to be realized. Without that platform, the show won’t go on. So it’s not about goals being good or bad, but making sure they are appropriate for the right part of the total package.
This is where the confusion comes in. Creative work — in the generative sense — isn’t about goal-setting at all. A look over the history of innovation shows that many of the things that have added the greatest value to our lives were never conceived of with a goal in mind. The discovery of many medical breakthroughs have been by chance and the prepared mind, not planning and goal-setting.
Goals are also highly constrained by systems, often those that are invisible to us. If we don’t take note of that or realize them by asking the right questions, we might follow the wrong path or worse — achieve the wrong goal.
When we listen to our audience or customers or patients we might find our original idea lacking in something so we make a shift. Many great innovators don’t set out to achieve a specific thing, they allow themselves to be shaped by the act of creation, evaluative feedback from putting things out into the world and experimenting, and by the opportunities something new gives them.
Sometimes, as Bruce Lee said, the goal is simply a way to provide focus on you where want to concentrate your efforts. It’s also about playing the right game in the first place.
Playing The Infinite Game
Goals also imply you’re playing a game with rules and structures where they mean something when you ‘score’, hit the target, or reach the goal. As Simon Sinek has written and spoken about: goals only matter if you know what game you’re playing. Drawing on the work of James Carse, Sinek calls into question many of the ‘games’ we play and how we’re often playing the wrong one. The goal of finite games are to win, while the goal of infinite games are to stay in the game.
Business, for example, is an infinite game. No one ‘wins’ at business. We might achieve success, but a great product or service or financial year today doesn’t mean much over time if you can’t adapt and innovate. Kodak learned this with digital photography and Blockbuster learned this with online videos and streaming. In both cases it wasn’t about the technology change (as some suggest), but the mindset behind how they approached the game they were in.
They had and set the wrong goals. They failed to see what game they were in.
By playing the infinite game, our goals mean something different.