Home > Leadership, The Monday Musings Column > One never goes so far as when one doesn’t know where one is going – Goethe

One never goes so far as when one doesn’t know where one is going – Goethe

This one is a bit of a double edged sword maybe. You can work with it from a couple of angles as least.

Taking a first look you can see the issue of people who don’t know what they are doing using far too much resource to achieve, if at all, the desired end. I learned about wasted effort way back in the days when I worked on the farm in the school holidays. I doubt that any of the guys had any formal training in O&M (Organisation and Methods as we used to call it) other than what they might have picked up in the forces, but you learned these things through peer group working, common sense and experience. Waste was the enemy because it cost money one way or another and, in an area where there was a lot of manual labour, it took its toll on the individual. As a skinny 13/14 year old I couldn’t heft a hay bale, but I could drive the tractor and trailer as well as anyone and that freed up an able bodied man to do the hefting.

These days we make great play, quite rightly, of making sure that our teams are trained, equipped and well drilled so that we don’t waste time and effort. We dress things up with fancy names, but they are all just refinements of the common sense that we’ve learned down the ages and that have evolved with the leads we have seen in technology. Operational efficiency is the name of the game as we all try to get the most we can our of our assets, and techniques such as six sigma and lean have entered our consciousness and vocabulary, and these have migrated from the manufacturing sector and been adapted for use in other industries.

So knowing where you are going does enable one to get there by the most direct route, but is that what Goethe was talking about in the quotation I have used?

The other possibility is in terms of making progress, and the possibilities that open up when you are experimenting are enormous. We’re all familiar with the old chestnut about thinking outside of the box, and that’s a starting point maybe: If you don’t constrain yourself with conventional thinking and just strike out into the unknown, who knows where you will be able to get to?

The adventurous spirit that has seen us poke our way into various parts of this planet and into space still has a place in the business world. Those who are prepared to try something new or a different way of doing things are pushing the boundaries and taking us all forward. This is how we make real progress in life and in business.

I make no effort to second guess which way Goethe was thinking, but suspect that he was on the latter tack. Is that the right option? I think that we need both. The first approach make things work well, keeps costs down and customers satisfied. It drives quality and consistency in what is offered and these are all fine things. It is good, but it makes small, incremental improvements and there is a danger of stagnation.

But we also need the pioneering approach to make the big differences, push the boundaries and take us down new routes because this keeps the waters moving and avoids that stagnation risk.

My contention is that we need both approaches and a balance between the two, so sometimes it is good to try that leap into the unknown and to accept the risk.

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