Overstating the end-state, Obscuring the objective

Published by Tony Quinlan on

I came across a glorious Churchill quote recently while reading Billy Bragg's The Progressive Patriot. It wasn't one I had heard before, but it sums up beautifully something that challenges many of the people I talk to – how to set direction and objectives for large numbers of people, many of whom have different perspectives on the world.

"Precise aims would be compromising, whereas vague principles would disappoint."

The context is important – this was in January 1941, where the immediate task of fighting the war was supplemented with setting a longer term direction for the world after the war.  The War Cabinet were agitating for a vision of a new and better world than the pre-war status quo, in part to counter Hitler's promise of a new world order and in part to maintain commitment among the British population (to draw the parallel more explicitly with current organisations – to build their engagement)

It mirrors what I've seen in other places – the temptation to spell out the detail of a future utopia. (Ten years ago, I recall colleagues wanting workshop participants to imagine themselves in the future and spell out everything they sense.) But that is doomed to fail, because the reality always differs from the dream (assuming people don't simply dismiss the exercise and trot out what they think the facilitator/sponsor wants to hear) – and worse, if people have actually believed that their visions have a chance of coming true, the reality will discourage them. (In addition, if you are in an environment with an opponent or adversary, you will give them valuable intelligence in their fight against you.)

At the other end of the spectrum, vague principles are too abstract, too idealist and too misperceived. They're often inarguable – honesty, leadership and innovation are examples that come to mind – but mean different things to people in different environments and with different backgrounds. I'm also against abstract principles universally applied per se – while I'm all for innovation, I'd rather that the team in the salary department remain steady and uninnovative, while I think we are all leaders at one time or another, an organisation of all leaders all the time sounds like a nightmare scenario – chaotic in the extreme.


The alternative I'm exploring with people in different environments is setting direction (and boundaries) by using multiple diverse micro-narratives.  We want "more stories like these and fewer like these" – it avoids absolute ideals and utopias while also explicitly indicating where the future does not lie.  As a way of communicating to a diverse (and diversely-intelligent) audience it is more easily understood while, crucially, allowing people some leeway to exercise their judgment.