We were recently asked on our free online leadership course whether it's better to set goals then analyse reality or to analyse first then set goals. Our answer is below!
There are a few important points here which we feel justify setting goals and vision first.
The first point is that the goals should be connected to the vision (principle 2). The 21st Century leader needs to describe what we should be doing & achieving. This ideal is very important as it defines what we are about. The ideal should not be constrained by the real. We first have to describe what the better world looks and then analyse the world so we can find a way (a strategy) to shape it to create that new reality. If you analysed first, then set the ideal/vision/goal, you would always be trapped by the limits of what you perceive to be possible today. You would not move towards building a better world, you would do the best you can given the limits of today's reality.
For example, Martin Luther King focused first on what should be (an equal society), and then worked with his teams to create strategies that would move the USA towards this ideal. If he had first analysed the reality, then set goals, he would have worked towards the humbler goal of slightly less segregation in the south because that was what most perceived to be possible in the reality at the time. This reveals a crucial difference between leadership and management approaches.
Leadership is focused on the future, it's about articulating the ideal and working to shape the current reality to create that ideal. Management is focused on the present. It concerned with performance and efficiency. The management approach would focus first on analysing what the situation to discern what is feasible in the present. However, focusing on the immediate future is more the domain of tactics than strategy. True strategy requires an ideal, an understanding of what we should achieve. Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War' and Von Clausewitz's 'On War' provide excellent deep perspective on this. In summary, the basic difference is between responding to reality vs. shaping/directing/defining it. If you analyse the reality then respond to it you are responding to what is currently happening. This is useful for adapting to immediate change and being practical. However, with this approach, you will never be shaping and setting the agenda because you will always be working within the current reality never working to create the desired reality.
A second important point shows how important the leadapreneur concept is vs. the traditional management approach. This is focused on innovation. Innovation does not operate within the current reality because by definition it is seeking to re-define the current reality. By focusing on what is presently possible, you eliminate the possibilities of innovation and, most importantly, innovation's consequences. What this basically means is that if you are only focused on today's reality, and setting goals based on today's reality, you will be completely unprepared for new innovations that your strategic analysis had not predicted (and could not predict because it is only concerned with the present reality). This failure to forsee the future is catastrophic in today's fast moving world. There is no better example of this than the collapse of Nokia in less than 5 years of when it achieved it's greatest revenue and the continued collapse of Blackberry. Both failed to re-imagine the future and based their strategy around analysis of the present rather than what could/will/should be. The traditional management approach does not properly integrate innovation into its reality analysis because, as explained above, it is focused on maximising the immediate present.
Leadapreneurs must master entrepreneurship, the skill of exploring uncertainty and creating useful innovations, so that they can lead innovation in their teams and organisations and, very importantly, understand the disruptive & discontinuous nature of innovation and can develop appropriate strategic plans. i.e. ones that anticipate disruptive innovation and inherent uncertainty rather than simply relying on analysing today's reality.
Finally, the creation of goals and strategy based on analysis of the present can result in catastrophic strategic mistakes. For example, during World War 1, the Ottoman empire controlled the important port city of Aqabah. They analysed the situation and concluded that the desert behind them was impassable and that the only possible attack was from the sea. Therefore, they positioned all their defences to face the sea and prepare for a naval assault. However, Laurence of Arabia famously led a small army (or, depending on which sources you believe, participated in) through the ‘impossible’ desert terrain, and completely surprised the Ottoman’s who had been expecting an attack from the sea. The small force of Bedouin overcame the larger Ottoman garrison with relative ease due to the surprise and the capture of this town transformed the war effort in the Middle East against the Ottomans.
Why did this happen? The basic point is that they first analysed the reality, made some assumptions, then set the goal of protecting the town from naval attack. It would have been much better to first set the goal of protecting the town from attack from all directions. This overall mandate should have moved the planners to consider an attack from the desert and prepared accordingly.
In summary, analysing first then setting goals can lead to very dangerous blind-spots in your strategy. Instead, we argue it is superior to set a goal, then develop the right strategy for that goal. In hindsight, the Ottoman’s had a great strategy for protecting their town from a naval attack, but it was still vulnerable to land assault which proved to be a crucial mistake.