June 3, 2018

Tips For Turbulent Times: Be Clear About Victory

Back in the 90’s, I did some hiking in northern Spain with a group led by Erik Perez (pictured), a skilled mountain climber and highly experienced guide for Sobek Mountain Travel. We were hiking in the Picos De Europa, the mountain range that skirts the northern rim of the province of Asturias and had just spent the better part of a day humping steeply uphill in 90-degree heat and humidity. Yours truly had come close to full dehydration on that climb but we’d made it. The next day, Erik asked: “Who’d like to take some rock-climbing lessons?”

I was one of several folks who volunteered, never having done any rock climbing previously. It was fun. And I gave it very little thought beyond the moment.

Two days later, we arrived in the vicinity of the 1,000-foot Devil’s Tower-like Naranjo De Bulnes, a rock-climbing mecca for Spaniards. Erik said to me: “I think you can climb it.”

I was doubtful but, with Erik’s coaching, he and I and a young woman from our party made our way up the precipice and – later – rappelled back down. It was a religious experience… and literally unforgettable.

But another unforgettable thing that happened that day was something Erik said to me when we were back at the base of the rock: ”The summit,’ he said,’ is in the valley.”

What he meant was that you have not successfully climbed a mountain until you are safe and sound back at its base. (Most climbing accidents happen on the way down.)

It’s a good principle to keep in mind. We need to be crystal clear about what we are trying to achieve when launching any initiative of substance, whether it be personal or professional.

Here’s a fairly recent example of what not to do:

You’ve seen the picture before…perhaps many, many times.

It’s George W. Bush celebrating “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.

The date was May 1, 2003 and to say that the celebration was premature would be the understatement of the last two centuries.

Fifteen years later, the Middle East is arguably in deeper turmoil than ever. And divining our supposed endgame is virtually impossible whether we’re talking about Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or Syria.

I bring this somewhat embarrassing episode up because it represents an example of an error we all have a tendency to make: failing to define our goals with appropriate specificity. In the case of Iraq – regardless of one’s opinion about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of the entire enterprise – we had two jobs to do (win the war and succeed in the aftermath) and only planned for one.

When it comes to goal setting – for any enterprise – specificity is our friend; ambiguity an enemy.

You’ve probably heard about designing goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. It’s a great little acronym. And it works well.

Should you have some trouble forcing yourself to be appropriately specific, one way you can help yourself is by composing a newspaper article about yourself – or your company – five years from now. The article, which need not be more than two paragraphs, should explain what you’ve accomplished over the previous 60 months in some detail. Such an act of imagination can be helpful in unchaining your ability to be more concrete.

A second part of this useful exercise is to work backwards from your definition of “victory” to identify those major things you’ll need to accomplish to realize your intended outcome.

This can actually be done on just one page.

If you’ve been specific enough at the top of the page, the major steps you’ll need to master to get there should not be all that hard to identify as you work down the page. You can do this in just two steps. The first is to put 3-5 boxes below your statement on what “victory” will look like that represent the major initiatives required to achieve it. Then, under each box, put 3-4 bullet points that are action steps connected to each relevant initiative.

Once you’ve done this, you can sit back and reflect on what you’ve written. The thing I find when doing this is that the major issues you are facing should quickly pop to the surface. They could include barriers to action, missing organizational capabilities, or political problems that will need to be solved before a successful result can ensue. Sometimes, those obstacles may force you to revise your definition of success…should you not see a clear path to resolving them.

Give it a try one of these days. It’s amazing how much clarity can emerge from just a one-page exercise.