There’s an old joke that goes: a patient is seeing the doctor for the first time after undergoing extensive hand surgery. Holding up both bandaged hands he pleads, “but doc, will I ever be able to play the piano?” “I don’t see why not,” the doctor assures￼ him. “Great,” says the patient, “because I never could play the piano before!” It’s a cheap laugh, but it’s an important point: two people can have the same goal and yet hold completely different understandings of what it means and how to achieve it.
It’s easy to mistake the pursuit of a single distinct outcome for the pursuit of many similar outcomes. “Play the piano” can mean anything between being physically capable of pressing a key and being a virtuosic performer. It’s one, simple-sounding goal with a range of potential outcomes and assumptions. We see the same formula all of the time with corporate initiatives and client objectives. We can reduce the goal down to a single talking point, but there’s a massive amount of nuance surrounding what it means and how we’ll get there. Whenever we’re responsible for naming goals, we have the opportunity to create value by embracing the inherent nuance.
Let’s say a company announces a new sales target. At the extremes, some employees will say “no problem,” while others might say “no way.” Unifying the sales force behind the goal will take an awareness of the existence of these opinions. It’s only a bad thing if the company pretends the variations don’t exist. Conversely, if the company is willing to understand each unique perspective, they’ll dramatically increase their odds of moving the needle on their goals. They’ll also increase the perceived value of achieving the goal for their employees.
Let’s say a client wants to use our services to reach a future goal. At the extremes, we have to assess what’s reasonable, what’s not, and what other variables could be at play. Unifying the client behind how they’re going to achieve what they want to achieve while keeping one foot in reality matters. It’s only bad if we pretend the variations don’t exist. If we’re willing to understand each client’s unique perspective, we’ll dramatically increase the odds of getting them to their goal. Again, we have to understand why the goal matters to them and how they, and we, think they’ll achieve it.
A failure to listen to employees and clients results in a failure to align them with their goals. It’s a mistake to think simple agreements, like the one between the patient and the doctor over playing the piano, equals alignment. If we want to create value, it starts with listening to why the goal matters to each individual in the first place and understanding the assumptions for how it will be achieved. If we only ever state the goals, we’re as obnoxious as the patient in the joke. It’s a corny punchline, but an invaluable lesson.