It is that time of year where people are making resolutions and setting goals for the New Year. A couple of years ago I wrote about the difference between incremental and transformational goals. I want to revisit that theme as I didn’t have any good strategies for how to approach these goals at the time. By recognizing these goals as different types of challenges in the Cynefin framework, we can have a better approach to how to tackle them.
I have written about Cynefin here but as a brief overview, Cynefin is a framework that can help in making sense of challenges. Cynefin divides challenges into 5 domains Clear, Complicated, Complex, Chaos, and Confusing. When making plans we are only concerned about 3 domains of the framework Clear, Complicated, and Complex. Clear challenges are ones where there is a clear right path and everyone knows what to do. With complicated challenges, there may be more than one right approach. There is applicable knowledge and asking experts can help you find a path. In the complex domain, there is no clear path and even experts won’t agree.
Most incremental goals are either clear or complicated. You probably already know how to do what you want to do and if not there are experts that can show you the way. If you are setting transformational goals, you are likely in the complex domain. It is not clear what will work. You are going to have to try things and learn by doing.
With incremental goals, it will be easy to measure progress. Setting goals that are SMART (or even OKRs) make a lot of sense. You will easily be able to see how you are doing against your goals.
With transformational goals it is different. A lot of the “progress” you make early on maybe finding things that don’t work. These early failures are learning and they are a key part of progress. However, this means you won’t be able to easily measure progress. If you set a SMART goal, you may become discouraged as you can’t measure or track your progress. For transformation, it is more important to know the direction of change you want and focus on experimentation and learning.
Transformational goals are subject to Goodhart’s Law, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
If you are too focused on a specific target you will lose sight of the goal. The focus on hitting a number will prevent you from trying new things and experimenting.
As you set your goals for the new year, spend some time seeing which ones are transformational and complex and which are incremental and clear/complicated.
For the transformational goals, forget about setting a number and think about what new things you can try. The real goal in complexity is learning.