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Big Wins with Small Goals

This article makes the case that the future is unpredictable and that when we are designing, testing, and adjusting strategy sometimes small is better
© Purdue Agile Strategy Lab
Lowell Catlett is an economist, futurist and professor at New Mexico State University. He often starts his talks about the future with a confession you might not expect. He can’t really predict the future. Catlett points to research on the accuracy of economists’ forecasts on stock prices, unemployment rates and the like. One study looked at 7,000 different economic predictions and found only 47 percent of them were correct. In other words, flip a coin and you can beat the economists by 3 percent. Catlett’s take-home message is that although you can’t predict the future, you can prepare for it. The preparation is what helps us be adaptable when an uncertain future unfolds before us.

Organizational and civic leaders do a great deal of thinking about the future, often setting ambitious, long-term, big goals. Perhaps your own organization of community has a set of these goals for the future. I know of a large metropolitan region that set a goal 20 years ago to build a light-rail, public transit system; a large corporation that was sure a new market would create windfall profits; a small tech startup whose founder was so sure of his business idea that he used all the money he had saved for his kids’ college education.

What about that metro region? Still no light rail. That big company? New, unexpected regulations derailed their plans. The tech start-up? He lost it all. The people leading these efforts looked ahead and set big goals. Big goals, like the future itself, are dependent on too many factors out of our control.

Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard, writes about the power of small wins. She notes that doubt and dwindling motivation comes on quickly when a big goal is missed. She advises that on the other hand, small wins lead to what she calls the “progress principle” – more confidence, high performance, and motivation to keep moving forward.

Another researcher, John Bryson from the University of Minnesota, says that this same principle holds true for communities. He defines small wins for a community as “concrete, completed, implemented outcomes of moderate importance.” To get to the big payoff, Bryson says communities need to set a progressive series of small-win goals informed by a sense of strategic direction.

For example, one rural community was looking to bolster its agricultural economy, and leaders set their sights on repurposing an old shopping center with great access to a main transportation corridor, as a distribution facility for agricultural products. They grew frustrated and discouraged after years of no progress. When they regrouped, they focused instead on setting more modest goals based on what they could make happen in the short run.

Setting aside the outlet mall for the time, they settled on organizing a festival to promote one particular agricultural product produced in their area. They worked first on a recipe contest that would be a featured event at the festival. Within a year, they pulled off the festival with great success. It is now an annual attraction, drawing thousands of visitors (and their money) from around the entire country and also internationally. The big goal – the old outlet mall – was too big, too distant and too much out of their control, but a progressive series of small goals took them to a place they could never have anticipated. So, the next time you are dreaming of the future, try taking one small step. With each step you can see a little further on the horizon, and eventually you may see something that you couldn’t have visioned just a few step back. That’s when you start running.

© Purdue Agile Strategy Lab
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