The Myth of the Objective

Agile Leadership Jun 11, 2021

Recently I listened to a great podcast on the myth of the objective. We want to achieve goals and often create incentives to manage performance based on a measure of how close we are to that goal. This is fundamentally flawed in the domain of the uncertain and complex. The path to the goal is often less like a gradient descent optimisation but a more random path. This path is better navigated by focusing on the novel, rather than focusing on an objective. By using a fitness landscape approach we can see where the novel opportunities for progress are better than we can if focus solely on measuring the proximity to the goal. This blog post outlines my current thoughts on it.

A thought experiment

Imagine you need to navigate a maze to get through from one side to the other. Perhaps you are stuck in a car park and the other side is a glorious beach, complete with a cocktail bar and an amazing seafood restaurant. If you're not into seafood or cocktails, imagine something equally appealing as we navigate exiting lock-down.

You know nothing of this maze, there is no map and you can't see enough over the top of the walls to see the path, but you can see the top of the restaurant and the sound of those waves gets louder the closer you get to. How useful is that knowledge to you? I would suggest it is not very useful - you do not know where the dead ends are and getting closer to the goal is not going to help you, unless you're REALLY lucky.

There are of course plenty of approaches or algorithms for navigating mazes and all of them are based on novelty - where have you been before and what is a new path that might provide some interesting knowledge. To navigate an unknown maze you need to focus on what is interesting and what is novel, not how close you are to the goal.

That was complicated, this is complex

How does the thought experiment relate to organisational goals? The scenario above clearly has solutions, given expertise, that will enable meeting the goal, assuming the goal is possible and you can actually get from the car park to your cocktails. The problem space is ordered, there are multiple good practices for navigating a maze and a bit of expertise will give you a predictable outcome. This is a complicated or maybe even a clear problem, where we can see how to get to the end result and we just go through the 'algorithm'. It may be complicated - requiring an expert, or clear - can be codified in to a series of steps that will always succeed.

Organisational contexts are not ordered. They are unordered, complex, uncertain, changing. We cannot know the path to a goal prior to setting off and we cannot find a set of actions up front that will guarantee success. As well as the uncertainty and volatility, those very actions will change our context. Managing this by proximity to the goal risks hitting dead ends and stalling.

Measure the culture

This doesn't mean that we are left at the whims of random events and are subject to chaos. The context is not chaotic, it is complex. There are patterns that will emerge and the organisation very much has a disposition towards an outcome, which may or may not be success. This we can work with.

Organisational disposition is a gravity towards certain behaviour and culture that enables or impedes success. We can visualise this.

Take an example of two very simplified attributes that we may want to optimise: efficiency and adaptability. These are often in conflict so an optimal place to be is a bit difficult to see and conceptually quite tricky to measure. But as an organisation, we have a means of capturing and analysing a huge number of situations where efficiency and adaptability come into play - our people. The approach of understanding culture through the groups story telling is something known as distributed ethnography and this powerful, narrative based, approach is a key for unlocking the problem of sensing the culture.

If we collect people's experience as they occur, we get a near real time picture of the culture. Suppose we ask the following question:

Describe a situation where a decision was made that effected you and how it effected you.

We also ask the person submitting it to choose how efficient were they as a result and how adaptable they were able to be as a result, we may get a plot that looks something like this:

This plot allows us to see the disposition of the culture towards one of low efficiency and low adaptability as indicated by the cluster A. Cluster C indicates that there is some pattern emerging with greater efficiency and adaptability and cluster B is a small cluster where things are more different. Obviously this is a very simplistic view of culture and the fitness landscape could be multidimensional.

Opportunity for Change

The interesting thing about a fitness landscape is that it shows us adjacent possibilities. Cluster B may be better, but cluster C is much closer to A and there is less 'energy' needed to get there from C. So how do we encourage a shift from A to C as the dominant disposition? Well, we have a lot of gathered stories and we clearly want more stories like C and less like A. We can engage with the authors of those stories and ask the question - "what do we need to do to create more stories like C and less like A?" We can also use tools like Cynefin to understand what constraints are influencing the stories in A and C so that we can adapt the organisation to set constraints that encourage more stories like C and less like A.

Explore the novel

I've drifted somewhat from where I started, but now I will com back. The approach we are taking here is observing outcomes emerging from the novel. As leaders we want to encourage exploration of the novel in order for the patterns to emerge so that we can see what dispositional shifts will require less energy and will therefore more likely result in success.

The steps to outcomes may not be obvious and an approach that creates incentives based on proximity to goals may result in dead ends and sub optimal outcomes. Incentives that encourage exploring the interesting and novel are more likely to allow the as yest unseen stepping stones to emerge from the complexity of our organisations.


John Cumming

I am a Scrum Alliance CTC with BAE based in the UK. I hope to inspire people to develop themselves, their teams and their organisations through curiosity, collaboration and creativity.

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