Posted by: Nicholas Davis | March 7, 2009

Did Fermat set stretch goals?

While walking between appointments today in London I’ve been considering the strategy model presented by William Duggan in Strategic Intuition (see my previous post here). In particular I’ve been mulling over how Duggan’s interesting “flash of insight” approach to strategic thinking relates to more classical models of strategic planning (goal-setting and milestones etc) in achieving a desired outcome. Duggan, in the final chapters of the book, contrasts the two and argues that the “goal-persevere-succeed” falls down as both a descriptive and a prescriptive practice, advocating instead a focus on enabling the conditions for insight and preparing to seize opportunities. I suspect that Duggan is presenting a false dichotomy to highlight the unique elements of his model, for I think key elements of the two can and should be understood together (Duggan hints at this when he says that strategic intuition works slowly and deliberately before producing a “flash”, and requires self-discipline). However before I take this on, two caveats – first, let me stress here that here I am a scenario planner commenting on more general theories of strategy, and doing so after a long walk rather than a rigorous literature review; second, I still haven’t managed to find time for that close reading of Strategic Intuition I promised myself (I’m travelling). So forgive me if these ideas come out a little unformed and apologies for the long post.

The classical strategic planning approach: Goal-setting and perserverence

Now, I recall from my MBA studies that the classical approach to strategy, with its defined outcomes and deliberate processes, has its weaknesses in describing how strategy operates (and succeeds) in practice – Richard Whittington is the expert on this, and would no doubt explain that strategy is many things to many people. Prescriptively, however, it also seems that setting goals (ambitious or not) and deciding how to follow them often fails sufficiently to account for external sources of uncertainty, leading in many cases to missed or obsolescent targets (the recent decision by many companies to abandon giving earnings targets in the current market could be taken as an extreme example of this). In my mind, evidence of robust links between setting ambitious goals and following through to success is also open to criticisms of survival bias (we don’t see those who tried and failed) and hindsight bias (people might be tempted to reconstruct a lucky victory as a goal-led success in order to take the credit for themselves).

However, as Ian Smith points out in his presentation on the decisions involved in lion tracking, “decisions are sometimes more important than skills” and “skills follow decisions” – ie when you commit to a challenging goal, you are driven to learn, grow and invest in success and hence have a higher chance of reaching your goal than if you never committed. Duggan points out that this is also Tony Robbins point of view (Tony’s website even offers to help you set your life goals). I think the argument that goals matter holds some truth – I’ve certainly had more interesting experiences following an ambitious decision, even if I subsequently failed. Having a common vision in an organization, a common goal, is a powerful motivator. So even if the classical approach is flawed, we shouldn’t dismiss the power of ambitious goals and making tough decisions that will force you to step up to a major challenge, nor the value of perseverance.

Strategic Intuition: creating the conditions for flashes of insight, preparing for uncertain opportunities

Looking at Duggan’s approach, I’ve already pointed out that strategic intuition is lacking in a few areas, many of which Duggan himself recognises and will no doubt remedy in further work. For instance he points out that on its own strategic intuition leaves the user somewhat lost in practical terms, with both the upstream and downstream challenges I outlined previously here needing to be resolved for it to be truly useful. In addition, if presented as a complete approach, the opportunistic elements of strategic intuition could also serve to unfairly undermine the value of vision-setting, ambition and perseverance as operating principles.

Nevertheless, Duggan is persuasive in arguing that the strategic intuition model explains better the success of key individuals and organisations, from Napoleon to the Google guys. I would submit that very few of them thought about or knew where they’d end up when they started. Serendipity plays a large role in the evolution of most great achievements, and sources of positive uncertainty as well as the brain’s ability to suddenly produce amazing insights needs to be accounted for as an element of achieving success.

Reconciling a (false?) rift

In some sense, there isn’t that much to reconcile. It seems natural to accept that setting a clear goal will increase your chances of achieving that goal (and also, arguably, achieving success in general), by increasing motivation and leading to resource mobilization – however it is equally clearly not a magical technique that will succeed if you could only persevere forever (it is not the secret) – there is still too much external uncertainty out there that could undermine your efforts. It also seems natural to assert that what is needed in today’s complex, uncertain and interdependent world is the ability to respond quickly in innovative ways to opportunities as they arise – but while people who are good at spotting a niche and filling it in an innovative way might have an very real advantage over others, they will likely also need to persevere for years before realising the true value of their ideas. Yet there is also tension between the concepts of pursuing set goals and remaining open to every opportunity (which is likely to be amplified in the strategy literature).

Ideally, of course, it would be possible to reduce the two approaches to well-described theories of strategy, with elements that can be empirically tested individually and in combination to produce significant and illuminating results and a give birth to a whiz-bang new model of strategy. But, following the case-study approach that Duggan took in his book, perhaps the story of Andrew Wiles hints at how core elements of the approaches (goal-setting and perseverance on the one hand, creating the conditions for flashes of insight and preparing for uncertain opportunities on the other) combine to produce phenomenal success. Interestingly, I re-read Wiles story when I saw a reference to him on Duggan’s website, so it’s fitting that his case be used to illustrate a potential harmony between what Duggan proposes as a dichotomy of approaches.

A long-term goal solved through flashes of insight – Fermat’s last theorem

Wiles is the mathematician who solved Fermat’s last theorem, a thorny mathematical problem that survived intact for 357 years before being cracked by Wiles in 1995. A transcript of a PBS account of his story can be found here. But to summarize:

  • from the age of 10 Wiles wanted to find a formal proof to the theorem
  • as a mathematician at Cambridge, he was advised to take a different, more practical, path in mathematics and did so, focusing on an area seemingly unconnected with the theorem (modular forms)
  • one evening over coffee, about 25 years after first encountering Fermat’s theorem, he was told that a crucial problem required for the proof (the Epsilon conjecture) had been proved, which provided him with the opportunity to use his work on modular forms to prove the problem via the Taniyama–Shimura conjecture
  • stopping all other work except his teaching duties at Princeton, he focused on the problem exclusively for about 7 more years
  • after making breakthroughs, hitting walls and changing approaches a number of times suddenly, at the age of 42, the pieces all fell into place and he solved the problem, with some crucial help from colleagues. He said of a definitive moment:

“I was sitting here at my desk in May of ’93, still wondering about this problem, and I was casually glancing at a paper of Barry Mazur’s, and there was just one sentence which made a reference to actually what’s a 19th century construction, and I just instantly realized that there was a trick that I could use…”

Here, we see both patterns at play, supporting each other – goals+perseverance (the classical approach) building upon conditions for flashes of insight+grasping opportunities (strategic intuition) and vice versa. The first provides the motivation for the upstream elements of strategic intuition – memory, experience and exposure relevant to the problem, as well as downstream perseverence. The second provides the mechanism for innovation itself – the flashes of insight that build to a solution of an insolvable problem. Both are required to achieve ultimate success.

Notice, however, how the element of uncertainty links the two approaches in terms of both strengths and weaknesses – Wiles had to abandon his dream of solving the theorem in his 20s in order to achieve it in his 40s – had he focused entirely on the theorem it is probable he never would have succeeded. And it was through a series of uncertain events and exposure to key concepts and papers that gave Wiles the data for his “intelligent memory” to produce the insights required.

So what?

The main takeaway for me from all this is that goals should be flexible as well as challenging. It is rational to set a goal and to go for it, understanding that this will force you to experience and learn things you may not otherwise have attempted. But it is also rational to let a goal go if it becomes truly unrealistic, or a better opportunity presents itself – because uncertainty is a fact of life. In particular, it might be easier to be reconciled to those times when we fail to reach a specific goal if we appreciate that simply having the goal provided value separate from the desired outcome. Having flexible goals therefore both motivates and strengthens the spirit in times of failure.

To expand on this this point, I’d submit that goals operate positively in at least two ways: providing psychological motivation to persevere in a direction that entails putting relevant pieces of information in “intelligent memory storage”, and also in providing a touchstone for prioritizing the path downstream from strategic intuition – when Wiles realized suddenly that other breakthroughs made it now possible for his work to solve the problem, his previous goal made it easy for him to prioritize pursuing that flash of insight for the following 7 years, and supported the perseverance required to work through the long period of analysis required to succeed. However, among a number of dangers of inflexible goals is the possibility that failure is more costly, due to the psychological cost of missing a target and the self-blame that is entailed when uncertainty isn’t recognised as a key element in both success AND failure.

The second key takeaway for me is that having overriding goals can be very helpful indeed in prioritizing when or not to follow a flash of insight. If the flash is in line with a dominant goal, it might be worthwhile pursuing. If the flash is entirely unconnected, hard thinking is required before the investment of serious resources in realizing the idea. This goes someway towards solving the downstream conundrum I mentioned earlier.

The third key takeaway is that it is highly important to read broadly around your topic and delve into similar concepts in entirely different fields, as Michael Fairbanks advised me to do last year when I was wondering which direction my scenario research should go in. This maximises the opportunity for you to make a connection that leads to a novel solution or new pathway through the problem, creating the right conditions upstream of the flash of insight.

So Duggan is right – you need to enable the conditions for flashes of insight and be prepared to seize opportunities. But Tony Robbins and Ian Thomas are right too – ambitious goals, self-belief and perseverence are critical elements to success. The trick is balancing the two so as to be prepared to lead your life in a number of different directions, and perhaps fail entirely or succeed in ways completely different to what you had once imagined. Now for the comments to reveal whether I’ve spent 2000 words to state the bloody obvious or have actually said something sensible or even illuminating – any thoughts, Vincent?


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