Five Islands Many Routes


The Art of Letting Go When Managing Objectives

As a family, some years ago, we had the good fortune to sail the Grecian Cyclades Islands. During this journey I read Homer’s classic, The Odyssey. Contrasting the technology we had on board our sailboat to the Mediterranean’s original sailors, I was astounded by the fact that even with technical advantages, we still struggled with the age-old problem of wind, water and weather.

We had departed from Athens along with about a four other boats. Each having chosen different routes to the various scenic islands within the archipelago. Some of our decisions were dependent upon avoiding the prevalent Meltami winds that blow in the area in July and August. about a week later, as fate would have it, all sailboats were harboured together during a storm on the Island of Paros.

In comparing notes, we realized that each of us had visited the same five islands (Paros being the sixth island), but all had taken completely different courses. Each boat had arrived at a common destination but had radically different experiences. In reflecting on the circumstances, I related the situation to the leadership act of managing the objectives of a disparate organization.

The lessons learned here are interesting:

Objectives are about establishing a destination.

All too often leaders fall into the trap of defining too many steps in the journey. An employee, if given a clear view of the destination, guidelines about controls and an effective set of navigation tools, will often achieve an objective, as well as learn something about being independent, and become more self motivated. Dictating the path to an objective will often force an employee to miss the learning that needed to be done on the other “islands” along the route or perhaps, more importantly, on the rougher water between the islands.

Many routes with five islands

In our sailboat adventure there were one hundred and twenty alternatives to reach the final destination. In most business situations, the odds are not as good. There are significantly more things to take you off course in business challenges and it is unlikely that you, as a leader, can predict the correct course to reach an objective given the regular course corrections required in most businesses.

Be clear—define the destination

I was surprised to learn that there are nearly 8000 islands in the Mediterranean. In the business world, there are nearly as many objectives. Be painfully specific when you define objectives for your employees. Vague references to the market, beachheads and products do not provide sufficient dimension to aid in achieving objectives. The three important details that need to be articulated are a) What, b) When and c) How much.

Where am I?

Early navigators had little but their own wits to figure out where they were. In order to achieve objectives, employees must be given the coordinates of where you want them to get and a means to understand if they are in need of a course correction. Regular communication and some control is needed to ensure that your business navigators can monitor their own progress and can raise a flag if they need help in making a course correction.

Reward a successful journey.

Our family’s reward for arriving at our island destination was a calm harbour, a fine dinner at a restaurant with only four tables, food caught, prepared and served by the friendly owners (all members of the same family) and to be seated so that the waters of the Mediterranean lapped at our feet as the sun sank in the west.

In business the consequences of the achievement often seem far more elusive. We are often more caught up in the planning of the journey than with the reward for a successful conclusion. In setting up objectives it is important that the consequences (of either success or failure) also be articulated. As a leader you need to ensure that rewards are aligned with the difficulty of the task and are quick to be delivered upon a successful conclusion.

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