The problem with goals

 Collective wisdom tells us to set goals and reach them.

But what happens then? And what if such a dogmatic view can lead to counterproductive results? And what if, because of these goals, we miss out on auxiliary discoveries that may turn out to be better? 

Here’s an example, from Kottke:

One illuminating example of the problem concerns the American automobile behemoth General Motors. The turn of the millennium found GM in a serious predicament, losing customers and profits to more nimble, primarily Japanese, competitors. As the Boston Globe reported, executives at GM’s headquarters in Detroit came up with a goal, crystallized in a number: 29. Twenty-nine, the company announced amid much media fanfare, was the percentage of the American car market that it would recapture, reasserting its old dominance. Twenty-nine was also the number displayed upon small gold lapel pins, worn by senior figures at GM to demonstrate their commitment to the plan. At corporate gatherings, and in internal GM documents, twenty-nine was the target drummed into everyone from salespeople to engineers to public-relations officers.

Yet the plan not only failed to work-it made things worse. Obsessed with winning back market share, GM spent its dwindling finances on money-off schemes and clever advertising, trying to lure drivers into purchasing its unpopular cars, rather than investing in the more speculative and open-ended-and thus more uncertain-research that might have resulted in more innovative and more popular vehicles.

Be sure to read Nathan Bashaw’s Hardbound story on goals. He tells the tale of Ken Stanley, a guy who wanted to create software that evolves random images into meaningful pictures — moving from a weird dot to something that’d look like an eye, for instance.

The software, Picbreeder, never did what Ken wanted it to do, so he opened Picbreeder to the public and saw that humans evolved images in a much smarter way. 

One day, he started with a picture that looked like an alien and it finally became a car (you’ll understand what I say if you read the Hardbound story linked above).  

He realised then that great discoveries are possible but only if we abandon the need to control what they will be. 

It’s something that you may have thought of intuitively. It keeps happening with scientific discoveries, time and time again (the telephone, for instance).