Why New Years’ resolutions (typically) suck!

It’s that time of the year again, where most of us put together a comprehensive list of resolutions and goals to be a better version of ourselves by thinking what we would ideally look like in the future: lose weight, get fitter, be a better spouse, etc. For corporates the same mindset prevails, so it’s no surprise that business leaders I’ve worked the last two decades have similar aspiration goals: grow at CAGR+, increase revenue, decrease costs, become number 1 in the marketplace. When I was at Google the overriding goal in 2013 was to increase Google+ user acquistion (and that ended up alongside similar great ambitions in the Google Graveyard).

However, think back to Jan 2020 we no doubt lofty goals and expectations for a year poised to bring so much promise. How many of those did you achieve as a company (or personally?) Little did many of us anticipate the world-shaking event two months later, our best laid plans would go awry: Instead of doubling company revenue we were happy to breakeven, instead of growing our team, we were happy we didn’t have to cut salaries, instead of transitioning to digital…well actually that one did happen and accelerated out plans out of necessity! When setting goals, most determine what we’ve done then extrapolate forward, rather than using a futurist approach of backcasting from the future from your ideal long term self.

View: Fig 1. Killed by Google, Google Graveyard – Killed by Google

As we move into a VUCA world that is changing faster each year and with more uncertainty (who would have thought that last week the USA Capitol would have been under threat of an internal coup), our ability to remain ahead of these changes is governed by the delta minimization between the external environment and what’s within our internal locus of control. How then should business leaders ensure they can set and keep track of a more realistic set of 2021 resolutions? Here are 9 suggestions for you and your team as you craft your 2021 ambitions:

Why New Years’ resolutions (typically) suck!

View: Fig 2. VUCA World, F1401C_A_LG.gif (720×784) (hbr.org)

Before you set your goals

“The victory of success is half won when one gains the habit of setting and achieving goals” – Og Mandino, American Author

1.       What are you prepared to sacrifice?

Committing to a new resolution is hard work! If you want to get that perfect body, it’s easy to wish for it but not so easy make the pre-requisite sacrifices: the extra hour sleep, junk food or time catching that last episode of Queen’s Gambit.

This may be guised as not losing focus, but it’s much more.  When you have limited resources, what will you focus on, or the flipside: what will you sacrifice? Cash? Operational efficiency? The new product development? Skunkworks for innovation? What about your team’s mental wellbeing? Only once you know what you are prepared to give up can you decide what your goal will be.

2.       Momentum over Metrics

You’ve likely heard about SMART goal setting to provide a framework for specific goals. The challenge with the absolute achievement of SMART goals is their binary nature: either you achieve them or you don’t. Either we double revenue, or you don’t. Either we release a new widget, or you don’t. While this provides focus and accountability (see below), what’s more important is momentum that has both magnitude and direction. Often when a new leader is appointed, they shelve their successor’s plans, reset the strategy and come up with their own plans. In the process,  they remove previous gains and while they progress a lot (magnitude) the direction often isn’t aligned with their successor and so efficiency is diminished. You momentum in creating new goals should be in the same direction of those you already have in the pipeline.

When making your resolutions, ensure you are aware that it’s the incremental daily movement toward an end state that is important, not the end state itself. It’ s a manifestation of the 1% rule of improvement realizing a 37x gain in a year: strive to make small steps in the same direction every day.

View: Fig 3. SMART Goals

One of the biggest interventions instituted by Microsoft’s Satya Nadella was a culture change with the primary driver being a growth mindset. The belief was that personal growth implied team growth that drove company growth. This exceptional mindset was instrumental for Microsoft, for a brief time in June 2019, to be the most valuable company in the world. Similarly, when setting resolutions, having a fixed mindset/goal limits out ability to transcend beyond that initial target, capping our potential; or worse see it as the binary success or failure metric.

View: Fig 4. Microsoft’s growth under their CEO’s, The Man Who Is Transforming Microsoft | Fortune

How to Keep going

“When you’re going through hell, keep going” – Winston Churchill, Former UK Prime Minister

1.       Execution over planning

Analysis paralysis, strategy formulation and planning is a natural for many leaders. Furthermore, compensation for most corporates is anchored on delivery of results that is a natural outcome for mitigation of risks (company’s are reward to reduce risk, not take them!). But to ensure your newfound resolutions are met, it’s important to start, even if it’s just the single step as per the saying of a thousand miles. Often there is a delay “until the time is right,” but the time will never be right – better to start and then adjust as we start in a lean manner – then not at all.

2.       External accountability

There is an urban legend where a prominent South Africa CEO would call a press briefing and disclose the new product they will launch in the near future. They would then go back to their internal executives and tell them what they had publicly committed to. This puts the impetus on the team to deliver before the said deadline lest the CEO be left with egg on their face. This approach of external accountability helps focus the mind: no one likes being the fool once you’ve announced you will do something.

3.       Positive Framing

Undoubtably though the journey, there will be hard times where you second guess your ambitions. It’s then that positive framing and affirmations are key. Don’t allow the negative orientation of your (lack of) results set you back. Negative perspectives such as “we are being left behind by competitor x” or “our run rate is over by Y” will have you fixate on the wrong metric. Rather focus on your own momentum (see above) and the incremental improvement from previous measurement points.

With the events of 2020, it’s easy to fall into what my friend, Bronwyn Williams, calls Postalgia: That things right now are as good as they are going to get. It’s tempting to be lured into the mindset that the current reality is the zenith but hold a positive framing in mind of a better and more positive future.

When you must Re-evaluate

“A pivot is a change in strategy without a change in vision.” – Eric Ries, The Lean Startup

1.       Sensing the shifts

Growing up, one of my favorite fiction characters was the great Sherlock Holmes and his uncanny ability to solve the mysterious. There are a multitude of lessons as a futurist I can draw on ( this is a future topic I’ll write on), but the applicable one here is how Sherlock employed a group of street urchins (Baker street irregulars) who were able to “go everywhere and hear everything”: in effect, they were his early sensor system for the changes around him. Likewise, find your “street urchins” who are able to direct you to the signals (not trends) likely to affect your resolutions and act accordingly lest you be left behind.

2.       Failure is part of the plan.

Often, we have been told that “failure is not an option,” but a world of rapid change, failure is not only an option but needs to be planned, anticipated, and celebrated. When you fail to reach the ideals of your resolutions, use a positive frame to view it as a learning opportunity and pivot to find a new strategy as part of your momentum approach to succeed in 2021. In fact, I would push go further: if you aren’t failing, then the ambition in the first place wasn’t enough of a stretch.

1.       Be Kind

Irrespective of your 2021 journey, reflect on the challenges of 2020. I can’t think of anyone who would have anticipated the year we just had (maybe the Simpsons). As such, one of the key things we (collectively) learned was: be kind. In 2021, above all else, resolve to be kind – kind to others who are on a journey of growth and may not be able to reach their own goals, but just as importantly: Be kind to yourself. Be human, be fallible, be vulnerable.

Bonus Lesson! Even though the world has never moved so quickly, it will never again move so slowly! Be ready, anticipate the future and create it from the future reality you want and backcast to today.

If you enjoyed this, please do share via email, social media and check out my website. One of my 2021 ambitions this year is to use my research to help you create extraordinary futures. I would love your feedback and an opportunity to learn with you.

Craig Wing