Eisenhower recognized that he needed to set goals, consider a variety of perspectives, challenge his own and others’ biases and assumptions, lay out a course of action, and identify potential points of failure. By taking the time — in the case of the Allied invasion, many months — to make careful plans, Eisenhower might not have been able to guarantee success, but he knew the thinking would not go to waste. He could ensure that everybody on his team understood what success looked like, what the cost of failure would be, and why they were following this course of action.
Luckily none of us have to plan the invasion of Normandy, but in our current times, making even simple decisions as leaders — whether in your business or in your home — can feel as complicated as landing troops on a French beach. With so much up in the air during the Covid pandemic, we’re fighting against two forces: uncertainty (we don’t have the information we need) and ambiguity (the best outcome is a matter of interpretation).
The degree of uncertainty that we can tolerate depends upon our personal or organizational comfort level. Some of us try to avoid uncertainty, some of us tolerate it, but few of us actively embrace it. We can never shrink uncertainty to zero, because the future is always uncertain, but we can reduce it by turning to experts or sleuthing for information we don’t have. For example, while we may not fully understand how Covid-19 spreads or what its long-term effects are, we do know that there are evidence-based steps we can take to reduce the likelihood that we’ll contract the virus.
Gathering more data, however, won’t reduce or resolve ambiguity. Our decision will ultimately be a judgment call, based on our values. We have to drill down on what matters to each of us, or to our family, or to our organization. To confront an ambiguous problem, we have to invert our decision-making: Instead of focusing on the problem itself, we need to define what a successful outcome looks like — what I call your “vision of success.”
Take the example of parents trying to figure out how to raise successful, well-adjusted children. The classic question would be: How do I raise good kids? Asking it may help you navigate some uncertainty — you can research child development or listen to the advice of experts — but it won’t solve your problem. Ultimately the definition of a “good kid” is ambiguous. Is it one who’s academically successful? Who’s close to their family? Who’s good at team sports?
To find your answer, you need to start at the end with your vision of success: What does a good kid look like for me and my family? What’s empowering about this approach is that you’re able to answer the question even without knowing how you’ll get to that successful place. Your answer will help you identify what has to happen to get to the outcome you desire. And your answer will be rooted in your values. All of these components give you agency and a kind of control.
Take Marisol and Fernando Caro, for example, parents of two tweens who wanted to raise good kids. Their ultimate vision of success was an emotionally connected, communicative family who enjoyed spending time together.
Marisol and Fernando are working parents with fixed work schedules. Their kids are athletic and enjoy playing team sports. As they worked backwards to figure out how to achieve their vision of success, they realized that weeknight dinners and weekends were their only options for meaningful family time. Ultimately that meant that travel sports teams were a no-go, because they required weekend trips to distant game locations. Instead they enrolled the kids in local town and school teams. When their son’s soccer coach recommended he join the travel soccer team, their answer was a com “no,” centered in their family values.
Or take the example of Eric Dawson, founder of Peace First, a charity that operated in 140 countries to empower young people to work toward a more just and peaceful world. In 2018, Peace First was awarded a small grant from the Gates Foundation to explore expanding their work into the Mideast and North Africa, the so-called MENA region. Peace First had no idea whether young people in the region would be open to and engaged by peace-making work. Through the grant, they found the answer: yes. But as the grant was ending, the organization arrived at a “choice point,” Dawson says. “Without the grant, should we wind things down in the MENA region, or keep our presence small, or scale up slowly, or place one of our two or three big bets in this area? Each pathway had a myriad of issues connected to it that could put the organization’s future at risk.”
In order to move forward, Dawson and Peace First needed to frame their ideal outcome, and they looked to their mission to define their vision of success. Ultimately they decided their existing work was fundamental, and any new opportunity — even one that showed great promise — could not detract from existing projects. Once they were grounded in what success looked like — maintaining their presence and impact in the 140 countries where they were well-established — Peace First could assess the fit of the MENA project and determines. From there, Peace First evaluated and decided that yes, the MENA-area opportunity met Peace First’s mission, impact, and fundraising needs, and elected to continue working in the region.
Whether you are planning for your family’s or your organization’s future, starting from your values will help you plot a path through ambiguity. Maybe, like Eisenhower, you’re planning to land your troops safely somewhere. Maybe, like the Caros, you’re intent on securing relaxed, connective family time. Or maybe, like Peace First, you’re deciding how to expand your organization. In all of these cases and more, beginning with your vision of success will help you get there.