Don’t let means triumph over ends

If Friedrich Nietzsche hadn’t been a great philosopher, he would have made a pretty good consultant (I leave you to decide whether this was a missed opportunity…).

Here’s an example of his perspicacity:

“During the journey we commonly forget its goal. Almost every profession is chosen and commenced as a means to an end but continued as an end in itself. Forgetting our objectives is the most frequent of all acts of stupidity.”

Not one to mince words, was Professor Nietzsche.

How This Matters Today

You will probably spend a fair proportion of your time this week sitting in meetings. How much of what is discussed will be about activities which have become untethered from the goals they were once intended to achieve?

Vulnerable areas include research, budgeting & planning exercises, OD activities, over-elaborate system implementations, processes & procedures, not to mention the meetings themselves.

For example, look out for things like this:

  • People regard divisional ‘strategic planning’  as a form-filling exercise to keep the centre happy, rather than a way that they identify and act on the most promising opportunities.
  • ‘Targets’ are met – and bonuses consequently paid – while goals remain unmet. This often results from clumsy use of balanced scorecards: you find elaborate chains of metrics detached from the real objective (e.g. “short call centre queue length” is rewarded, which leads to operators hurrying customers off the line, causing a decrease in satisfaction. But the target is met).
  • Data gathering which is repeated every week/month/year without resulting in new actions. A common example: surveys are started as a way of ensuring morale, then, when the results show that people are unhappy, the feedback is suppressed or watered down (making everyone less happy still). That’s bad enough, but then the survey runs the same time the next year!
  • Lots of ‘preparing to get ready to change’. For example, getting staff certified in some methodology or other is called a ‘deliverable’, or happy sheet scores are taken as evidence of achievement. Passing a milestone is not the same as reaching the destination. Being underprepared is silly, of course, but overdoing preparation just delays any result-producing action and it’s one of the most tempting and time-consuming traps in change management.

The Simple (but not always easy) Remedy

The remedy – which I grant sounds incredibly obvious –  lies in two questions: “Why?” and “So What?”, as in,

“Why are we (still) doing this?”


“Given this research/set of filled-in forms/survey/data…So what?

Sounds obvious, but evidence all around us shows that this kind of focus is nonetheless elusive.

The Most Important Job of a Leader?

Leaders have to keep the organization focused on results, not on procedures which have become over-elaborate, or which may have been a good idea once but are now past their sell-by date.

One of Nietzsche’s books had the evocative title: “Human, All Too Human” and certainly that’s a fair assessment of the tendency to forget the goal and become engrossed in the intricacies of a task – indeed it’s one which seems deeply seated in the way the brain works.

A leader has to stay aware of this all-too-human tendency and be vigilant: is the busy-ness actually bringing the business closer to real goals?