Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Letting Go Of The Task

For the past few weeks now, I've been coaching several participants from my recent sustainability workshop. Each has a leadership role in a sustainability program. Sustainability is all the rage these days, especially here in Portland, and many organizations want to get on the bandwagon. But few are ready to pay the band.

As a result of this situation, most of my coachees have few or no staff and only a fuzzy commitment from the organizations they work for. This is an exciting situation with a lot of promise, but it can also be frustrating. In fact, getting more organizational support was a main topic of the workshop.

At the end of the workshop I asked each participant to commit to an achievable goal by a specific date. The purpose of the commitment was to give them something concrete to take away and work towards. And now, in my coaching sessions, I use that commitment as a starting point towards stimulating real progress in the organization.

I've noticed something very interesting about these goals. In the workshop, one's goal culminated a full morning of work understanding real, long-term objectives. We worked backwards from the end-game, and the goal was supposed to be a taking off point. But now the goals seem to have taken on lives of their own.

Several of my coachees have become so focused on their goals that they have a hard time thinking about what comes after. So, for example, the goal of offering training by a certain date has displaced thinking about the behavior change that the training is supposed to initiate. Significant opportunities to support that change are being missed because they don't seem relevant to the goal of offering training.

This kind of displacement is one reason why businesses tend to lose their creative edge. Goals are required to get anywhere, but they can easily take over one's consciousness and energy. And the more pressure there is for accountability and control, the more important goals become. There are performance goals, strategic goals, daily goals, hiring goals, delivery goals, and so on.

It can be argued that living exclusively by goals is simply bureaucracy by another name. In any case, we are all susceptible. There must be something about the way we think and the way our organizations develop and grow that drives individual and collective behavior in that direction. Whatever the reason, the creative process model I use recognizes this trap. In the model, temporarily letting go of goals is an essential step in maintaining creative vitality.

It's impossible to really get outside the box when one eye is always on a goal inside it. So my job with my coachees is to keep them thinking about what comes after the goal is met (or not) – what is the "long line" as Ben Zander puts it. I do this by reminding them to remember where the goal is supposed to be taking them. Occasionally, as we learn more about that, we find that the goal is not particularly helpful. In that case, we are happy to abandon it!

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