Achieving our goals in uncertain times

Achieving our goals in a churning world requires very different skills from achieving the same outcomes in a stable environment.

What are those skills and how can we acquire them?

One way to find out is through ‘benchmarking’. This means looking for organisations that are already experts at doing what we want to do and then copying or adapting their approach.

Which organisations are already best practice at achieving specific, measurable goals in highly unpredictable situations?

I can’t think of a better example than elite army units. Special forces operating behind enemy lines know how to accomplish their objectives in fast-changing, unpredictable, even hostile environments.

The way they achieve this is by defining just two things.

The first is that, as well as knowing their mission objective, they also make sure that every team member understands the purpose of the mission: the role it plays as part of the wider campaign. Then, when things turn out differently from how they expected, each person can quickly find new ways to achieve the same purpose — and do so independently if necessary. This increases speed and responsiveness.

The second is that every unit is also given rules of engagement. These define what actions (such as returning fire) are allowed and not allowed, under different circumstances. This reduces distractions and keeps the unit focused on its priorities, which maximises the chances of success.

Just these two things make the difference to success in a time of change.

For us, the equivalents of purpose and rules of engagement are our purpose and values.

Our purpose defines the underlying intention, the why that lies behind who we are and what we are doing. Being clear about our purpose enables us to face in the same direction over time, even when the world around us is changing and trying to spin us round. And if it turns out that we cannot meet a particular objective, then knowing our purpose enables us quickly to look for other objectives that would support the same purpose.

Our values show us two things. They show us which issues are priorities for us, which shows us which issues we can ignore, which saves us time. This keeps us focused on what matters most to us and makes us more effective.
Our values also let us define how we choose to behave, no matter what the other people around us might be saying or doing. This keeps us centred and grounded, which helps us find our best ways forward, which helps us step into the unknown.
In a time of change, all these things will increase our efficiency, effectiveness, and adaptability. And that will help us to achieve our purpose.

The way elite army units succeed in fast changing, even hostile, environments is by defining their purpose and their rules of engagement.

When we define our purpose and values we give ourselves the focus and flexibility to achieve the results that matter most to us, even in a changing world. This is another step to becoming antifragile.

Would you like to increase your ability to get the results that matter most to you, even in a changing world? Do you know your three core values and your life purpose?

Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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(And remember: you don’t learn to swim by reading about swimming, you also need to practice.)

Photo By USASOC News Service via

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