How many possible worlds can you see?

I’ve been thinking about the entire subsection of GTD which relates to better definition of outcomes and ultimately better results. The storytelling and delegation post can be considered as a couple of ideas aiming to solve a subset of that entire issue, which can pretty much be summarized as follows: “How do I make sure that I define my projects, even single action projects, in such a way that I myself or those I delegate to are most likely to succeed?”

The easy solution

There is an easy solution to this … make your outcome definition as weak as possible so you can check off the project action as done or achieved without lying to yourself. Of course, this is how you shoot yourself in the foot over the long term. If you continually undermine your own outcomes, your achievements will not amount to much. Then you can blame the methodology for not supporting you, and it won’t be on you. I’m starting from the assumption that you, dear reader, are not that kind of person. Although sometimes we all are.

The difficult solution

Defining your outcomes, what you want to achieve, is very much about having a clear view on what the outcomes can be, and what you believe the outcome should ultimately be. Fully understanding what the outcomes can be requires you to be able to see multiple future worlds. And therein lies the rub.

The quality of outcomes

When conducting brainstorming exercises, the number of ideas the group is asked to generate is often a multiple of the actual number of ideas used. There’s a reason for this: if you ask a group of people for their best five ideas, they are likely to give you their first five ideas or at most the best of their first ten ideas. This is why we often ask people to generate 50 our more ideas.

Our self-imposed educational limitations

The reason is simple: we tend to settle for less, as a group and as individuals. The same goes for outcomes. When we define them, we tend to look for one relevant outcome, and not the breath nor width of options available to us.

By the way, I strongly believe that our current educational system is limiting our children in their ability to see enough worlds out there. The insistence on keeping them occupied as well as the truly ancient way of educating people to conform to standards of performance which are only useful in a production, not a knowledge worker context, is robbing our children of their inate natural flexibility of seeing multiple possible outcomes. But that’s another post.

The interesting thing is that some people that choose to ‘adapt’ the educational structures for their own purposes, such as Steve Jobs and Marc Zuckerberg, have succeeded in keeping that capacity for broad visioning alive. It’s a trait sorely lacking in a lot of so-called business and other leaders today.

What we lose if we don’t define better outcomes

If our outcomes are limited by our daring to be creative, our lives are limited by the quality of those outcomes. So, we really owe it to ourselves to provide our projects with high quality outcomes which take in account that the environment and the context in which we try to achieve these outcomes may change.

How to

Alright, but what can we do to enhance our outcomes? I’ve made a shortlist of a couple of key ideas which will get you started:

  1. Look further than first outcomes: when defining a project, look at other possible outcomes of your actions and how they will count to furthering the achievement of your project.
  2. Quantify some kind of metrics around your larger project outcomes: what do you consider good enough? You should not necessarily go for 100% perfection, but you need to know when you can count on your results enough to further the achievement of your broader goals.
  3. Self-evaluate regularly: regular self-evaluation will help you in checking where you are in terms of the achievement of your goals. I like journaling for this purpose, but there are many other approaches that are as good or better. See what works for you, but stick with it.
  4. Close out your projects when your outcomes are within the brackets you defined: sometimes we tend to continue on in a project even when we have achieved what we needed to achieve. This is often the case if we fear shipping our results. Committing to closing a project when we have achieved what needed to be done, when it is good enough, is another element which really helps me.

If you try to do at least these things in a consistent manner for your larger projects, I’m certain you will see a marked improvement in your results. Good luck.