How Overfocusing on Goals Can Hold Us Back28 March, 2016 / Articles
Imagine you want to design a robot that can get through a maze by itself. How might you go about it? First, you would probably define the robot’s objective: Find the exit of the maze. Then you would create a mechanism to reward the robot for moving toward that goal and to punish it for moving farther away, so that over time it finds its way out. But what if the robot comes to a dead end right next to the exit? It’s geographically as close as possible to its objective but it can’t get there. And it won’t want to turn around because that would mean moving away from the goal and getting punished. Your robot would be stuck.
Kenneth Stanley is a professor in artificial intelligence who has studied this problem, the stagnation that can result from dogged pursuit of a prescribed goal. Eventually he and his colleagues arrived at a simple solution. What if instead of rewarding the robot for getting closer to the maze exit, they rewarded it for trying new and interesting directions? They found that this shift in programming significantly improved the robots’ ability to solve mazes — a successful result in 39 out of 40 trials, versus 3 out of 40. Testing objective-less challenges in many other AI contexts, Stanley got similar results. When made to seek novelty, his robots developed surprising and creative solutions to problems they could not previously solve.
Stanley and Joel Lehman present their research in their new book, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective, and argue that it has serious implications for humans as well. If we, like the robots, pursue new and interesting directions rather than preordained goals, we’ll achieve better outcomes.
Of course, reprogramming people and organizations is no easy feat. One of the most sacred texts in the business world is Peter Drucker’s classic, The Practice of Management, which introduced the concept of “management by objectives”(MBO). Dave Packard, who based Hewlett-Packard’s “HP Way” on MBO, described it as “a system in which overall objectives are clearly stated and agreed upon, and which gives people the flexibility to work toward those goals in ways they determine best for their own areas of responsibility.”
Most modern managers take this as a given. Of course goals should be clear; how can you prioritize work or run a company without them? We have corporate and group objectives (quarterly and annual), project objectives, and individual objectives, and we’re reviewed and rewarded for meeting them. At a large bureaucratic company, a typical objective for a midlevel manager might look something like, “Ensure optimal support for assigned projects in line with agreed timelines and priorities.” This might be followed by 20 project-specific objectives such as, “Ensure high quality and timely delivery of cross-functional alignment plan for printer firmware update.” In today’s data-driven world, organizations seem to be more focused than ever on metrics that track progress toward such goals; we all want to know whether and how quickly we are moving toward desired results.
But Stanley’s work indicates that our objective obsession might be doing more harm than good, causing people, teams, and firms to stagnate over time. And this view is bolstered by statistics on and stories surrounding invention. Reports indicate that half are the result of not direct research but serendipity — that is, people being open to interesting and unexpected results.
Consider just a few examples. Viagra was originally developed to treat angina pectoris, a painful heart condition. LSD was synthesized from ergot rye fungus with the objective of developing respiratory drugs. YouTube was conceived as a dating site. Instead of focusing only on their initial goals, and most likely failing to achieve them, the people working on these projects allowed themselves to take detours, in the process creating different breakthrough drugs and technology.
Outside the R&D department it’s hard to imagine an organization or an individual leader greenlighting a project with no goal other than to discover something new and interesting. But this is a mindset shift we all need to make. The more time we spend defining and pursing specific objectives, the less likely we are to achieve something great.