Ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in. – Bill Bradley
The ambition loop is a concept I first came across in a talk by Nigel Topping on what was needed to make meaningful change on decarbonisation. It’s a simple idea. Make a plan. Take action. Repeat.
There are several problems with setting targets – and they usually have to do with incentives. For example, if your bonus is based on you hitting a particular target then you will focus on doing the things that get you closer to your target. What happens if the “right” thing to do is something that takes you further away? Will you do the right thing even if that means you don’t get your payout while others do?
People who think about systems argue that everything is perfectly designed to do what it does. If you take a system and give it a target then it could do that for a bit but eventually it will revert to what it’s designed to do. For example you can decide your cow is a horse and ride it for a while. Eventually, however, you will regret it. When you’re slipping down a neck towards a pair of horns I can assure you that you start wishing you were anywhere else.
Targets can also give you the mistaken impression that there is a single point that you need to hit. In reality things wobble around and your target is more of a space, with an inside where you want to be and an outside where something is different for better or worse.
Despite all these problems targets have one overwhelming advantage – they’re simple to understand. If you have a daily target – a wordcount, a profit, the number of emails left in your inbox – you can take action that helps you hit your target. And when you hit it you gain confidence and that confidence helps you set more ambitious targets and so on.
Setting targets you can achieve is what builds you up. Setting unachievable ones can simply mean you give up. And that’s another challenge – do you set big hairy audacious goals, as the book says, or do you set goals you can meet? Should you bootstrap your startup with your own money or should you go out and raise hundreds of millions?
There are no right answers to this question but the ambition loop model can help you decide which targets are going to help you. The loop suggests that you have to be able to hit your target in order to move around the loop. Each time you go around you build up your store of ambition.
So, if you want to achieve something start small, start simple – and let it build from there.