Doubt GraphicGetting things done

by Matthew Leitch, 17 May 2002

Cybernetics, control loops, and "achieving your life and business goals"

No theory of how to get things done has had more impact on personal and business life in the last fifty years than a particular mix of control theory and pseudopsychology that I know you will recognise immediately. The theory goes that the best way to get things done is to set clear and specific goals up front, backed up by clear milestones, monitor your progress against them, and take corrective action when actual achievement deviates from your plan. It is usually linked with the belief that setting aspirational goals is good, and that positive thinking is better than negative thinking. "Focus on success" and keep using feedback until you get it.

This appears in various forms including budgetary control, management and control of projects, and advice on how to achieve success in life, boost your motivation, win at sport, and so on. There's even been research that seems to show that optimists are happier and healthier than pessimists, even though the pessimists are more often right. (Optimists are people who tend to think things will turn out well, while pessimists tend to expect things to turn out badly.)

And yet, despite the enormous popularity of these ideas and their status as "good management common sense", I will show that they are associated with a series of damaging errors in reasoning about uncertainty. Some of these are so serious, and so common, that they amount to a strong case against this whole approach.

Deliberately distorted expectations

As someone with an education in science, mathematics, and logic I sometimes forget that there are many people who deliberately cultivate beliefs they also know to be distortions of the truth. Here are some of the errors of that type:

The alternative to these views might be called Rational Uncertainty Management. Rational Uncertainty Managers consider the full range of outcomes and have reasonable expectations about the likelihood of their occurrence. They take action to make good outcomes more likely and prepare to exploit them fully if they occur. They also take action to make bad outcomes less likely and prepare to minimise the damage if they should occur. If the odds really don't justify continuing with something, they stop - after the Pessimist, but before the Optimist.

The Rational Uncertainty Manager benefits from better decisions flowing from a much more realistic view of the future without the lethargy of the Pessimist. This approach natually promotes taking action rather than being passive.

Example: Imagine a long distance running race. You are in fourth place and some way behind the person at number three. You're in pain and tired. Someone who believes in positive thinking would need to convince themselves that they were definitely going to get into the top three in order to justify making that effort. With an optimistic attitude they might succeed in convincing themselves of this and pick up speed to catch up the runner ahead - at the risk of exhausting too early and dropping places, which is a risk they prefer to ignore. The pessimist would hang back and concentrate on keeping ahead of the person behind. The Rational Uncertainty Manager would recognise that the outcome is uncertain. Runners ahead could be about to reach exhaustion or suffer injury. Your own resources may be greater than expected - or lower. The most likely outcome may be fourth place but there is a reasonable chance of doing better. Despite the pain and fatigue you know you are not in imminent danger of injury and, since you have nothing to do that requires great physical effort over the next few days, you could exert yourself to complete exhaustion without penalty other than the discomfort at the time. If the chance of a better position justifies the discomfort you press on, adjusting speed based on the risk of exhausting too early or not fully exerting.

Problems with specific goals

It helps to be able to distinguish between better and worse outcomes. However, this idea is often over-extended to a belief in the special value of "specific" objectives/goals/targets/budgets set at the outset of a venture, leading to a number of errors:

Problems with monitoring progress against the plan

The foregoing points have given a number of reasons why monitoring progress against a plan may not be a rational way to think about uncertainty. However, there are yet more.

It makes more sense to evaluate progress against your current view of what outcomes are valuable and what the goals should be.

© 2002 Matthew Leitch