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Beware the insidious and invisible threat of… Goalodicy!!!

May 23, 2016

Or, if you prefer, this alternative title: Why Big Hairy Audacious Goals can sometimes suck!

So… hello again Friends.

It’s that time of year again where for a brief period of time (in between the end of the northern hemisphere winter in April and the start of the Asian monsoon in late May) short windows of stable weather occur at extreme altitude, enabling mountaineers to climb to the summits of the Himalaya’s highest mountains, including, of course, Mount Everest.

This is the first time in three years that climbers have had a chance of summiting Everest, after the disastrous earthquake and avalanches and deaths of 2014 and 2015. I haven’t closely followed the goings on in the Himalaya this year, but I have heard through the grapevine of summit pushes on a number of 8,000m peaks underway over the past week or so. Let’s just hope there’s no loss of life, especially Sherpa life*.

*Why especially Sherpa life? Well, the statistics show us something quite alarming. Did you know that a Sherpa climber working on Everest is nearly four-times more likely to lose their life on Mount Everest than an American infantryman was in the first four years of the Iraq invasion 2003-2007? (It’s one of the reasons I never went down the path or partaking in large, commercial expeditions.) Want to learn more? Watch this excellent documentary called Sherpa: Trouble on Everest, which has a few of my Nepali mates interviewed in it. It was filmed at the time of the 2014 Everest serac collapse in the Icefall, killing my very dear mate Ankaji.

What seems peculiar to me, however, is that despite the comparatively large loss of life on Everest over the past few years, much is still made of the events on Everest in 1996 which—just to recap—involved eight climbers (including two of the world’s best high-altitude mountaineers at the time) losing there lives in the space of a few hours as an unexpected storm descended on the mountain, and the climbers’ team dynamics and decision-making processes fell apart under pressure.

The events of 1996 have been immortalised in literally hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, books, movies, and documentaries. (For what it’s worth, I think John Krakauer’s 1997 book Into Thin Air is the best of these, and last year’s Everest movie was surprisingly realistic and not over-hyped).

Somewhat bizarrely, however, is that the events of 1996 have been seized upon by numerous academics (including three who have had papers published by the reputable Harvard Business Reviewhere, here and here) and fretful MBA students who must complete assignments and make presentations to their classes in a bid to understand what businesses can learn and apply to their own organisational strategy and conduct.

Now, yes, I know, I’ve written about this in a previous newsletter and of course, in my book The Light and Fast Organisation: A New Way of Dealing With Uncertainty (where I suggest Expedition Style is the wrong type of mountaineering for analysis if you want to learn about things that will be useful for your organisation in the new world of work), but given that there are still so many large organisations making what I think are some very fundamental mistakes in their approach to responding to the changing business landscape (or even simply ensuring ongoing relevance, as my friend and fellow Wiley author Dr Jason Fox says in his very good new book How to Lead a Quest: a handbook for pioneering executives), I want to look at one of the particular concepts that came out of the academic dissection of the events.

So, in short, let’s revisit 1996 one more time.

In doing so, I’d like to look at the work of two particular authors: George Washington University professor of management science Christopher D Kayes’ insightful book Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mount Everest Disaster, in which he looks at the 1996 events through the lens of modern western society’s cultural obsession with goal-setting, and British journalist Oliver Burkeman’s absolutely must-read book The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, through which Kayes’ work was popularised.

Both Burkeman and Kayes use their books to question—amongst a few other things it must be said, Burkeman’s especially—the value that goal setting brings to modern western society. As Burkeman notes, goal setting seems to have achieved the status of religious dogma in today’s world.

And they’re absolutely spot-on.

Just think about it: from the time our kids enter primary school (and sometimes even before that), we ask them, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to do with your life?’ And that’s just the starting point. Indeed, the linear, sequential and systematic process of the modern western education system is itself very goal-orientated: you are encouraged to aim to succeed at high school, to enable you to ‘get’ the dream career, the dream car, and the dream house. We’ve all grown up with it—it’s what we know.

As a key idea in his book, Burkeman counters that many of our major decisions in life are made with the goal of minimising what he refers to as present-moment emotional discomfort. He suggests trying this following (and potentially mortifying) exercise in self-examination:

Consider any significant decision you’ve ever taken that you subsequently came to regret: a relationship you entered despite being dimly aware that it wasn’t for you, or a job you accepted even though, looking back, it’s clear that it was mismatched to your interests or abilities.

If it felt like a difficult decision at the time, then it’s likely that, prior to taking it, you felt the gut-knotting ache of uncertainty; afterwards, having made a decision, did those feelings subside?

If so, this points to the troubling possibility that your primary motivation in taking the decision wasn’t any rational consideration of its rightness for you, but simply the urgent need to get rid of your feelings of uncertainty.

So, how did you go?

Says Burkeman:

What motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, much of the time, isn’t any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it’s something much more emotional: how deeply uncomfortable we are made by feelings of uncertainty.
Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future—not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.
We fear the feeling of uncertainty to an extraordinary degree—the psychologist Dorothy Rowe argues that we fear it more than death itself—and we will go to extraordinary lengths, even fatal ones, to get rid of it.

While Burkeman looks at goal setting from a wider, societal level, Kayes hones in even further and considers its place in the culture of our organisations, suggesting that goals have become, as he says, the theology of contemporary leadership. Kayes suggests that uncertainty prompts us to idealise the future, insisting that we tell ourselves that everything will be OK, just as long as we can reach this projection of the future.

I see evidence of this idealisation of the future in organisational leadership and strategy on an almost daily basis, whether it is in the business media, at leadership conferences or at senior executive strategy days (senior executives in particular seem to love setting goals, especially if they are big and grand and audacious).

So why, I wonder, is this the case?

Well, I reckon that the much revered demi-god of business consulting and authorship Jim Collins undoubtedly has something to do with it: after all, it was he who strongly ingrained the sanctity of audacious goals in his books Built to Last and From Good to Great—you’ve no doubt heard of them (again, senior executives in particular seem to love them). It was in these two books that Collins created the concept of a BHAG (pronounced bee-hag, and short for Big Hairy Audacious Goal).

Funnily enough, Collins actually describes BHAGs as being huge and daunting… like a big mountain to climb, and suggests that the reason they work is because they are clear, compelling, and people get them right away. He says that they serve as a unifying focal point of effort, galvanising people and creating team spirit as people strive toward a finish line.

And in stable and relatively predictable environments, Collins is correct: BHAGs serve their purpose and enable great accomplishments to be reached. And of course, there are literally millions of examples of goal setting and its successes (Collins’ favourite example being the BHAG identified by Boeing executive Bill Allen in 1952, to gamble 25 per cent of the company’s net worth on a play into the commercial airliner business (prior to which the company had only experience building military planes).

So, big and audacious goals (I never really understood why they had to be hairy too)… yep, they can be very effective and powerful.

Which is probably why business leaders love them.

You cansee evidence of this everywhere. It explains why businesses such as this one truck off the leadership team to Colorado to spend a week with the guru Collins himself, and then come back and make bold predictions of where their sales will be in 10 or 20 years time.

But honestly? I cringe when I read stuff like this.

I’m not questioning the integrity nor the competency of the executive team referred to in the article—I’m sure they genuinely have the best of intentions and believe that they can do what they want have said they plan to accomplish—but to me, when senior leaders come out and announce their BHAGs to the world, it is no different to a mountaineer proudly proclaiming to all and sundry in base camp and saying, “We WILL summit the mountain in one week’s time, no matter what happens”. (Seriously, I’ve seen this happen before. It’s an interesting mix of arrogance and hubris, and often results in accidents, and sometimes death.) They genuinely think they are in control of their situation and have the confidence and self-belief to do it.

But the truth is they don’t know what will happen in a week’s time or in 10 or 20 year’s time.

No-one does!

Which leads us to the inevitable ‘BUT’ associated with the setting of goals, especially big hairy audacious ones.

And the but is this: there is huge potential downside to setting big goals. Turn them upside down and look underneath their glittery and shiny surface, and you find a much darker underside, an underside to which many people and organisations are oblivious.

And it is this darkside that Kayes identifies so brilliantly with his concept of goalodicy.

Goalodicy combines the words goal and theodicy, wherein theodicy is a term used by philosophers to explain why people hold beliefs in things and seek to maintain those beliefs despite evidence to the contrary that the beliefs are still warranted. For example, theodicy is present in comments which justify human suffering and pain, such as the rationale that God lets helpless children die “because he needs more angels in Heaven”. **

**Another way of thinking about it is if you’ve heard of socialist Max Weber—he used theodicy as a way to describe individuals relying on future idealised states to rationalise current suffering. Think of anybody doing something fundamentally ignorant, such as detonating a suicide vest in the belief of becoming martyred and rewarded with an afterlife in paradise, and you’ll understand theodicy.

So what actually is goalodicy?

Well, Kayes describes goalodicy as:

A situation in which the normally helpful process of goal setting becomes dysfunctional, and the effort put toward achieving a goal results in unintended consequences.

According to Kayes, the causes of goalodicy include:

  • identification with a distant, idealised, or narrow goal
  • dependence on a leader or leaders for key decisions
  • emergence of a novel, complex situation requiring critical thinking and problem solving

…and the warning signs of goalodicy include:

  • a narrowly defined goal
  • a prevailing public expectation that achieving the goal is imminent
  • face-saving behaviour displayed by the team or individual
  • the idealisation of a future with no or few problems
  • pursuit that is justified by the goal itself, and not other logic
  • the feeling shared among team members that achieving their goal is their destiny

…and finally, the unintended consequences of goalodicy include:

  • a breakdown of teamwork and learning
  • difficulty abandoning goals, even when they may result in disaster
  • unethical decisions
  • excessive risk-taking
  • inability to accomplish the goal

Hmmmm. Can you think of any instances at work or elsewhere in life where you’ve seen this happening before? I bet you can.


But back to mountaineering stories for just a few more minutes.

Kayes used the events of 1996 on Mount Everest to illustrate how the setting and pursuing of audacious goals can actually drive failure. For all of the climbers involved in 1996, the goal to summit Everest was incredibly audacious—be it for the very inexperienced climbers who were being guided up the mountain, and for the experienced guides who believed they could successfully get every novice climber to the top (and therefore improve their business’s reputation and by default profitability).

Kayes’s theory is that the more the climbers focused on their goal—to stand on the summit of Mount Everest—the more the goal grew beyond just an external endpoint they were working towards, and actually became a part of their own identity and sense of self-worth.

The more uncertain the climbers felt about their possible success in reaching the summit, the more likely they were to invest further in their particular strategy.

Goalodicy was particularly insidious for the Everest climbers in 1996, because as the unexpected storm descended around them high up on that summit ridge, the uncertainty and risk of their climb mounted. Not only did their plan become threatened, but so too their own identities. In other words, their commitment to their goal had become part of their identity, and rather ironically, the uncertainty of the climb only served to further their investment*** in a plan that was already looking increasingly dangerous.

***goalodicy is actually a form of cognitive bias. Cognitive biases, or heuristics as they are also known, are fast thinking shortcuts/rules of thumb that the brain intuitively uses to conserve energy. In stable and predictable environments, the shortcuts work. In unknown and rapidly evolving ones, they don’t. More on cognitive biases in another newsletter I think. A similar cognitive bias to goalodicy in mountaineering circles is known as summit fever. This is where a climber almost gets to the top of the mountain, and despite the deteriorating weather and the fading light, continue towards the top regardless of the obvious dangers. Because they have invested so much time, money and energy into their climb, they ignore the dramatic escalation in danger and press on (and often die). Investors also experience summit fever; they just know it by another name: the sunk cost fallacy.

But back to the original idea of this newsletter: the events of 1996 not actually being that remarkable—rather, they were just very well publicised. (Due to nascent satellite phone technology and the internet, it was the first time the world’s media at large could access an expedition to the world’s highest mountain in near real-time.) It’s not only on just a few occasions where goalodicy has occurred amongst mountaineers, especially on big Himalayan peaks.

In fact, mountaineering is absolutely rife with goalodicy.

Another and equally well-documented example is the story of Australian mountaineer Mike Rheinberger, who made it his life’s work to stand on the summit of Mount Everest. After six unsuccessful attempts over the preceding decade, he finally made it to the top in 1994, on his seventh attempt.

The warning signs of Rheinberger’s goalodicy were very much apparent, with Rheinberger telling another climbing colleague prior to what would be his final attempt that he was prepared to summit no matter the cost, even if it meant bivvying out on the way down. (Bivvying or bivouacing is where you spend the night outside, either sitting on your backpack or digging a snow cave; climbers with a wry sense of humour like to suggest that bivoauc is French for mistake.)

On Rheinberger’s final summit push, he left his high camp relatively late in the morning and he moved at an incredibly slow pace throughout the day. Despite the late hour and the increasingly desperate pleas of his climbing partner (the very experienced Kiwi guide Mark Whetu), Rheinberger refused to turn around and continued, finally achieving his goal at 7pm in the evening in near darkness. (For most experienced Himalayan mountaineers, the notion of being on the summit of an 8,000m peak any time later than early afternoon is an unpleasant one, to say the least.)

Rheinberger and Whetu were caught in the dark 20 metres below the summit at an altitude of 8,830m, so they spent the night outside in temperatures of minus 30 degrees centigrade and levels of oxygen about 25 per cent of what they are at sea level.

The next day Rehinberger was incapacitated due to hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) and died as they descended—only Whetu made it down alive (and he subsequently lost all of his toes to frostbite).

Watching the excellent documentary The Fatal Climb is an unforgettable experience—it is both tragic and haunting. In it, Rheinberger is interviewed only a few days before he departs for his final summit push, and is then filmed on the summit and descending on the day of his death. As the viewer you know that you are literally watching a dead man walking and talking. Listen to Rheinberger’s interview, and keep an ear out for the early warning signs of his goalodicy.

But of course, goalodicy isn’t just limited to mountaineering…

…which is of course the point of this newsletter (at last!).

In fact, it’s rife in many other aspects of modern human life. Indeed, I’d go as far as saying it’s rife within every aspect of human life.

Have a think about these following examples, and the role that goalodicy may have played:

  • the sinking of the Titanic—you know the story: despite six warnings of icebergs, unprecedented hype around the capabilities and in fallibility of this boat the captain was intent on making New York in record time. Was goalodicy at play?
  • the Enron scandal. The darling of the American corporate sector in the early 20000’s, until it was revealed that it was actually just willful corporate greed and phenomenal book-cooking. Was goalodicy at play?
  • Woolworths disastrous Masters play. Was goalodicy at play?
  • The ongoing confidence in the search for wreckage of Flight MH370, despite suggestions from a multitude of experienced pilots suggesting they are searching the wrong area. Is goalodicy still at play now?

So, what’s the solution?

The good news is that you’re already working on the solution by reading this newsletter.

The first step is to simply be aware of goalodicy as a concept. Like most cognitive biases, we are not very good at recognising when our cognitive biases may be leading us astray—or, as the very smart David McRaney (podcaster of the excellent You Are Not Smart podcast series) says, despite thinking otherwise, we humans are very much unaware of how unaware we are.

The second step to overcoming the risks of goalodicy is to reconsider the approach that you and your organisation are taking in the increased uncertainty and complexity that is out there in the world right now.

Our traditional ways of doing things has always been about identifying outcomes that we desire, and then busting our arse to ensure we get there. In other words, we prepare ourselves and organisations to be ready for (and to achieve) one thing: the big hairy audacious goal.

The counter-approach**** to this is of course to prepare yourself and your organisation to be ready for (and to achieve) any thing. In doing so, you’ll be ready to act quickly when those brief windows of opportunity arise. Whilst everybody else is still rallying in base camp and galvanising for the task ahead, you’ll be up on the summit and back down before you know it! You’ll leave your competitors in your wake.

****What’s the name of this approach? Ha! You already know the answer. It’s called Light and Fast!

And on that final note, I wish you all the best in your efforts to thwart the insidious and now not-so-invisible threat of goalodicy!

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