Like Columbus, in order to move toward an uncertain future, you need to set a course. But how do you set a course when the destination is unknown? This is where it becomes necessary to imagine a world; a future world that is different from our own. Somehow we need to imagine a world that we can't really fully conceive yet—a world that we can see only dimly, as if through a fog.
In knowledge work we need our goals to be fuzzy.
Gamestorming is an alternative to the traditional business process. In gamestorming, goals are not precise, and so the way we approach the challenge space cannot be designed in advance, nor can it be fully predicted.
While a business process creates a solid, secure chain of cause and effect, gamestorming creates something different: not a chain, but a framework for exploration, experimentation, and trial and error. The path to the goal is not clear, and the goal may in fact change.
This is true at both a micro scale and a macro scale. To create a complex industrial product requires the close integration of many processes. When you string a bunch of processes together you will see a branching structure with many dependencies. As long as every step is followed precisely and nothing changes along the way, you will achieve your goal reliably and predictably every time. The management challenge is one of precision, accuracy, and consistency.
Managing creative work requires a different approach. Because the goal cannot be determined precisely in advance, a project must proceed based on intuition, hypotheses, and guesses. This kind of approach is very familiar in the world of the military, where ambiguous, uncertain, volatile environments are the norm.
We all know that the military uses games and simulations as a way to practice for war. But they also use something called a concept of operations, or CONOPS, to (1) create an overall picture of the system and the goals that they want to achieve, and (2) communicate that picture to the people who will work together to reach those goals. A concept of operations is a way to say, "Given what we know today, here is how we think this system works, and here is how we plan to approach it."
A concept of operations is a way to imagine a world.
This may seem like a big challenge, but think about our two boys playing ball: the world we create does not necessarily need to be complicated to be interesting and to help us move forward. Imagining a world can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it, depending on your goal, your situation, and the time you have available.
Unlike a large and complex process, which must be planned in advance, a concept of operations is under constant revision and adjustment based on what you learn as you go. So, yes, you need to have a goal, but since you really know very little about the challenge space, it's very likely that your goal will change as you try out ideas and learn more about what works and what doesn't.
In gamestorming, games are not links in a chain, so much as battles in a campaign.
In a paper titled "Radical innovation: crossing boundaries with interdisciplinary teams," Cambridge researcher Alan Blackwell and colleagues identified fuzzy goals (they called it a pole-star vision) as an essential element of successful innovation. A fuzzy goal is one that "motivates the general direction of the work, without blinding the team to opportunities along the journey." One leader described his approach as "sideways management." Important factors identified by the Cambridge research team include the balance between focus and serendipity, and coordinating team goals and the goals of individual collaborators.
Fuzzy goals straddle the space between two contradictory criteria. At one end of the spectrum is the clear, specific, quantifiable goal, such as 1,000 units or $1,000. At the other end is the goal that is so vague as to be, in practice, impossible to achieve; for example, peace on Earth or a theory of everything. While these kinds of goals may be noble, and even theoretically achievable, they lack sufficient definition to focus the creative activity. Fuzzy goals must give a team a sense of direction and purpose while leaving team members free to follow their intuition.
What is the optimal level of fuzziness? To define a fuzzy goal you need a certain amount of ESP: fuzzy goals are Emotional, Sensory, and Progressive.
Fuzzy goals must be aligned with people's passion and energy for the project. It's this passion and energy that gives creative projects their momentum; therefore, fuzzy goals must have a compelling emotional component.
The more tangible you can make a goal, the easier it is to share it with others. Sketches and crude physical models help to bring form to ideas that might otherwise be too vague to grasp. You may be able to visualize the goal itself, or you may be able to visualize an effect of the goal, such as a customer experience. Either way, before a goal can be shared it needs to be made explicit in some way.
Fuzzy goals are not static; they change over time. This is because, when you begin to move toward a fuzzy goal, you don't know what you don't know. The process of moving toward the goal is also a learning process, sometimes called successive approximation. As the team learns, the goals may change, so it's important to stop every once in awhile and look around. Fuzzy goals must be adjusted (and sometimes, completely changed) based on what you learn as you go.
Innovative teams need to navigate ambiguous, uncertain, and often complex information spaces. What is unknown usually far outweighs what is known. In many ways it's a journey in the fog, where the case studies haven't been written yet, and there are no examples of where it's been done successfully before. Voyages of discovery involve greater risks and more failures along the way than other endeavors. But the rewards are worth it.