Archive for 2010/01/23

The need for the concrete objective

2010/01/23 2 comments

Returning to Anders Colstrup’s inspirational seminar on inspiration, I focus my attention to objectives and goals. Do we need objectives and what is a good objective?

This post shares a lot of ideas from previous posts, covering 7 habits, scrum and commander’s intent. But Colstrup somehow got a new twist to the importance of objectives.

Learning how to swim under water

He started by sharing a story. Read it and reflect.

A girl was learning how to swim and at age 8 had become a skilled swimmer for her age. She had decided to take one more swimmer’s level, after which she felt she was done. One thing she needed to do was to swim 11 meters under water.

Having not had any problems up until then, she jumped in, swam under water but surfaced just after 7 meters. Up she went and then down again. Surfacing, she could see on her father’s face that she hadn’t succeeded. Now the tips from the others started coming. She should swim until she ran out of air, take three more strokes and then surface. She shouldn’t ascend directly upwards but trying a forward angle.

She tried once more but failed. Now, she was almost in tears.

What did Colstrup do?

Think what you would have done.

What he did was that he placed a person 11 meters from the descend. The girl just had to swim to the person and then ascend.

What happened?

She succeeded immediately.


According to Colstrup, and I agree on his finding, the reason for the girl failing was not her lacking the skills. She couldn’t see the goal. Under water, you can see perhaps 30 centimeters so how could she know if she has swam 11 meters? By placing someone in the water, he made the objective concrete and visible.

I can only agree from my own findings. One of the most successful projects I’ve been a part of, we had a very clear picture which we all could touch and understand.

The makings of a good objective

Objectives must be there and they must be concrete. You must know if you’ve reached them.

If you go back to my previous post and read about the negative bunch, those not performing at their best. How many do you think are negative because the objectives are not clear or reachable? Colstrup was more direct in his critique of managers. Bad leadership.

But if someone does not share the objective? Colstrup worked with a team, and found that the players didn’t feel anything for the management’s objective. What he then clarified what what were the players objectives and if they were combinable with the management objectives. As they were, he could translate and relate them. If we together reach X, can’t you work at Y at the same time?

He then made the objective very concrete. The guys then got to build a number of small tokens, visualizing the reached objective.

What was also very interesting was how much he works with the mindset of placing athletes in the moment of reaching the objective. “When you’ve won that contest, where will you go for dinner? What clothes will you be wearing then? What will be your next competition after that? Will you get some new gear for that competition?”

Again, I cannot help but agree. When I’m completing a competition, I start thinking about what I’m going to do when I’m done. How long I will sleep, how much and where I’ll be dining. What form of exercise I will focus on then, etc. And also, the only time I’ve broken a competition was when that image disappeared from my head.

Working towards three objectives

He also warned about just giving one objective. You need three objectives, a Barrier braking, a Realistic and a Safe:


The safe objective is when you are satisfied with the performance. You didn’t do anything new, but anything worse than that is not acceptable. The realistic objective is somewhere you haven’t been before but it should be reachable. The barrier braking objective is something that you thought was impossible, but that is because you and everyone else sees that there is some barrier reaching this.

Why do you need three levels? Colstrup sees the objectives a a target area and the larger that is, the more do you have to aim for. But does this not mean that everyone will focus on the safe level? Well, Colstrup thinks that again that is where leadership comes in. It is a leader’s role to help the crew aim for the realistic objective, knowing that it is ok not to reach it.

If you don’t have the safe objective and the realistic objective cannot be met, is it a total failure then? No, not if at least the safe objective is met.

What about the barrier braking objective? Well, that serves many purposes and one is to enabling the participants placing themselves in the situation when the realistic objectives have been met; where do we go then? Also, there are often mental barriers which makes things seem impossible but by talking about them and de dramatizing them the mental barrier can fall and even the barrier breaking objectives can be reached. Colstrup does not see it as a coincident that when there is a record which is “impossible to break”, and it has been so for ages, when it is broken, it is broken by many and repeatedly.

By having this large success zone, Colstorp hopes that people can be more in the Learning zone:


If you’re just working for the safe objective, you tend not to learn anything, if you are going to reach the realistic objective, you need to stretch your capabilities and learn new skills. But if the objective is set to high, you stop learning and instead turn to panic.

Think again about the negatives. Where are they? Where do they want to be? Are they in the panic zone and are therefore negative? Or have you never reached your goals so that they mean nothing, and people are in the comfort zone since “nothing really changes anyway?”. Or does the objectives change all the time?

When it comes to barrier breaking objectives, I again as so many times before turn to a sequence with Lance Armstrong. Even if you think he’s been using illegal substances or hate his guts, do look at these 30 seconds. If you’ve missed the story, Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer and given 10% (!) chance of SURVIVAL. And here is what he said at the press conference, sharing this information with the public.

What was his objectives? Well, given the odds there was no “safe zon”, but we could say that the safe objective was survival. But Armstrong also had a next level: he was going to beat the decease. But what is truly exceptional that he also in this the hardest of moments had a barrier breaking objective: return to professional cycling. Cycling is a endurance sports, and recovering from cancer in the lungs to get to a professional level must have been seen as impossible. But he did it and by breaking this barrier, he gives hope to million of cancer strugglers out it the world: it is possible to work for not mere survival!

In his book, It’s not about the bike, Armstrong often goes back to these objectives and now when reflecting on it, he actually states that he needed all these levels of defining success during his hard trip back, to life and to professional cycling.

We are only lucky if our challenges are not including life and death.

But it’s not enough just to have a meeting, discussing the objectives. We must keep that objective in our heads, every day. Colstrup gave the indivual members of a team an illustration of the objective. And for each day there was one line where they had to place their signature if they agreed on that they understood, wanted and worked for the objective.

Symbols and concrete representations of team and risks

When you work toward common or shared objectives, Colstrup believes that you need not only a shared goal, but a sense of we feeling and a common symbol, something that shows how you act. He told us about teams picturing themselves as A Train or a Stove, which attributes where examples of how they were as a group.

If objectives must be concrete, the threats must also be concretized and de dramatized. Again, Colstrup uses concrete representations for the threats so that a team can “destroy” a threat in their mind.


To be able to succeed, you need to know we mean with success and then we have to work towards that every single day. Objectives which we have a concrete presentation of are easier to work towards and objectives which becomes a part of every day activities are the most powerful. Individual objectives must be translated to team objectives.

And if you get the chance to listen to Colstrup, take it!

Categories: Leadership