AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Intentions: Alternative to Goal Setting


Copyright 2001 AXIS Performance Advisors. If you use thisin any way, please cite the source.

Meaning, Intention and Commitment at Work

A different path to getting whatyou want

If you want to apply the concepts in this article,
check out the Team Booster activity at the end of this newsletter.

by Darcy Hitchcock

Courtesy chanpipat,

Courtesy chanpipat,

In the US, one of the most common questions we ask when we meet someoneis, “What do you do?” In other words, what do you do for WORK?We spend so much time at work and derive so much personal identity fromwhat we do that it is important to infuse our work with meaning. This isespecially important in today’s high-employment workplace if you want toattract good people. And our shift from an industrial economy to one basedon knowledge work only underlines this need even more, for we must relyon employees’ mental energy, their commitment to the mission and task, tobe successful.

All this said, we do not have particularly effective organizational practicesto get at this more spiritual dimension of work. Sure, we do visioning,write mission statements, and set goals but these don’t come close to embracingthe experience of discovering meaning, setting intentions or developingcommitment. In this AXIS Advisory, we will explore how practicesfrom other venues might be applied at work.

“Leadership is a personal quest you undertake, one based on a mission that troubles your heart.”

— Harriet Rubin, senior writer for FastCompany Magazine

I started thinking about this when I was working with an organizationthat offered self-help, self-study courses. One of the psychologists whowas writing the training said, “The only way I know to get people tomake improvements is to set a goal, make a plan and build in rewards alongthe way.” I responded that her approach would work well for many butwould not work for parts of the population. I told her setting goals wasa predominately Western concept. She looked at me like I was from Mars.It got me thinking about how much we take goal setting for granted in organizationsas The Way to get what we want. So Marsha and I hosted a think tank on thesubject of setting intentions, inviting an ordained minister, a practicingBuddhist, a cancer survivor, and other interesting characters. This newsletterdoesn’t summarize the results of the think tank as much as it expressesmy current musings on the topic as a result of what I learned there. I’mgrateful to all those who participated in the think tank for expanding mypoint of view.

 Goal Setting

Intention setting

Deals with goals, measures, plans, rewards Deals with personal passions, wishes, reflection, and discovery
Works best when: you know what the end state looks like and you have controlover key variables; situations of low uncertainty, stable environments;when top-down directives can get you what you need Works best when you may not know what the end-state should look like and/oryou don’t have a lot of control; dynamic/chaotic situations; when you needto tap into personal passions/commitment to get what you need.
 Assumes you can make things happen Assumes you can let things happen

Goal setting: One path to getting what you want

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to clump a bunch of practices underthe heading of goal setting: strategic planning, visioning, writing missionstatements, setting goals, writing action plans. If you get down to theroot, all these practices attempt to influence the future; they help youget what you want. The basic idea is figure out what you want, make a plan,work the plan, and if you’re really advanced, plan ways to reward yourselfalong the way. It’s a behaviorist’s approach to management.

So what’s wrong with goal setting?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not against goal setting as an organizationalor personal practice. It is often useful to set a measurable goal, developa set of actions that will lead you there, and reward your progress. Thispractice works especially well when two conditions are true:

  • You know what the end-state should look like and
  • You have control over most of the critical factors for success.

Losing weight, running a marathon, planning a merger or releasing a newproduct all are examples when goal setting can be helpful: set the goal,make a plan, work the plan.

However, there are many situations when the above two criteria are notmet. In today’s turbulent business climate, how can you know where you shouldbe in five or ten years? And even if you set a plan, there are numerousfactors outside your control that can throw you off: new technologies, aneconomic downturn, a vigorous competitor, new regulations, etc.

Who was it that said, “If all you have is a hammer, everything lookslike a nail”? When all we have is goal setting, then we tend to usethis same process whenever we want to influence the future. But this canbe counterproductive. I’ve often noticed that some people shut down whenyou ask them to set measurable goals. Suddenly, they’re afraid. “AmI going to be evaluated on this? Is this part of my performance appraisal?What happens if I can’t meet my goal?” Creativity, innovative thinking,and risk taking quickly devolve into safe, I-already-accomplished-it-anywaygoals. And if you persist, it can feel abusive. Can you really expect yoursales reps to set sales targets for the next two years when many of thesuccess factors (the economy, the advertising budget, new product releases)are out of their control? The common alternative, setting process goals(e.g., number of sales calls per week) can result in people doing what you’remeasuring them on, even if that’s no longer what’s best for the company.

Used in the wrong situation, goal setting has a constipated feel to it:straining, forcing, teeth-gritting. It’s about making things happen insteadof letting things happen. It can grind out the joy, the discovery, the opennessto new opportunities.

It may seem obvious, but goal setting doesn’t always work. We put somuch faith into it, that this fact is often denied. The next set of practicesI will share with you also are not fail-safe. But I believe there are situationswhere they are more likely to get you what you want than goal setting will.

Intention setting: Another way to get what youwant

Instead of making things happen, you can sometimes let things happen.This may seem “over the top” for many of you, but there are manywho believe and research to support that setting an intention does, in fact,seem to work. Manifesting what you want as a thought can run the gamut fromexpressing a whim, making a wish or saying a sacred prayer. Unlike goalsetting, you don’t create a lengthy action plan; instead, you let it goand wait to see what comes back.

“The most powerful tool in the arsenal of a person who truly wants to make a significant difference in the world is intent. The power of intention and commitment cannot be overestimated. The intention we speak of here is not what many learned early on in their careers — the commitment to ‘make it happen’ — in effect seizing fate by the throat and doing whatever it takes to succeed.

This commitment is another, deeper aspect of intention — it begins with the way we think about the world, about life itself, and the role we play in life’s unfolding. In this way of being, first we see the world as fundamentally open, dynamic, interconnected and full of possibilities — possibilities that stand in need of us.”

— Claus Otto Scharmer, Society for Organizational Learning, MIT Sloan School of Management

Perhaps a personal story will make the point. About 20 years ago, I wasmoving into a new house, one I was purchasing with my husband-to-be. AsI was unpacking boxes, putting books into the bookcase, a piece of paperfell from one of the books onto the floor. It was an intention setting exerciseI had completed several years before which I had long since forgotten. Itdescribed our new house in eerie detail: 2500 square feet, chalet style,in the trees, on five acres. The only part of the description that wasn’taccurate was the town I had listed (and for those of you who know my mudslide story, I now wish I had purchased a house someplace else!)

Many of you probably have similar stories. That’s why we have phraseslike, “Watch out what you wish for,” because wishes often seemto come true. And according to Paul Pearsall of Wishing Well, thereare numerous scientific studies showing that wishing, intention and prayercan, in fact, affect outcomes. One of the more famous studies involved peoplepraying for patients in another state. The prayed-for patients as a grouprecovered faster than the control group, even though they didn’t know theywere the focus of prayers. Spooky, huh?

There are many possible explanations how this works. Having a clear mentalpicture of what you want undoubtedly makes you more observant of opportunities.Scientists involved with quantum physics and chaos theory have discoveredthat, at least on the quantum level, intention and observation can affectexperimental results, so perhaps our thoughts do manifest themselves. Oneperson I know brags about her ability to conjure up parking spaces, callingit “popping a quiff” (“Quiff” is how they pronounceqwf for quantum wave function.) And of course, there are spiritual explanationsas well.

“When you broadcast such an intention, there is very little else you have to do. The broadcast of intention goes out and makes it happen.”

–Srikumar Rao, professor of businesscreativity at Columbia and Long Island University

Deepak Chopra is probably the most recognizable proponent of this intentionsetting approach. In his book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success,he explains that we don’t have to work so hard to get what we want. He encouragespeople to be reflective (why do I want this?), to consider the consequences(will this bring fulfillment to myself and others?), make a list of desiresand review them every day, and accept uncertainty as an essential ingredient,remaining open to the “infinity of choices.”

According to research documented in Wishing Well, “well-wishers”experience the following benefits:

  • improved immune response
  • reduced stress
  • being more forgiving
  • better able to deal with challenges
  • more connected and loving towards others

Even if this is hogwash or just the equivalent of the placebo effect,might it be worth it to practice wishing or intention setting anyway?

Marsha and I have been experimenting with corporate intention setting,what we refer to (a little tongue-in-cheek) as “strategic planningby wishing.” And our track record for getting our big wishes for eachyear is much better than for all the goals we’ve set (specific revenue targets,for example). We’ve come to trust in the process.

Intention setting seems to fit well when goal setting doesn’t. EarlierI said that goal setting works well when you know what the end-state shouldlook like. Intention setting can help you discover an end-state. (For example,last year, Marsha and I wished to become clear about what role we could
play in the sustainability movement….a wish that came true.) I also said
that goal setting works well when you have a lot of control over key variables.
Again, intention setting brings with it a philosophy to let events unfold.
It embraces the mystery of serendipity and invites you to explore the potential
meaning of situations as they present themselves. Whether you believe in
a spiritual force or not, this practice of reflection helps you see relationships
that you might ignore if you were narrowly focused on your goal.

According to Wishing Well, collective wishes have stronger power
than individual wishes. What would it be like to make a collective wish
with everyone in your organization? Imagine the process of discovering your
shared wish, of voicing it together, and then periodically reflecting on
the bounty that wish evoked. What an interesting ceremony that would be!

In Wishing Well, Pearsall presents a five step cycle which I have
laid out in linear form so you can compare it to our typical approach inbusiness on the right:

 Wishing involves…

Goal setting involves…

Purpose Mission statement
Meaning Goals
Compassion Tasks
Serenity Accountability
Delight Rewards

The two lists have a completely different feel to them. Both start withwhat you want and end with the natural consequences of achieving that. Butthe experience of living through these two lists is entirely different.How would you like to live in an organization that did more of the liston the left?

How do you set an intention?

So what do I DO? What would a replicable business process for intentionsetting look like? In the following process, I am blending practices fromintention setting (which we have discussed at length) and visualization(which is used a lot by Olympic athletes and cancer patients).

1. Uncover your passion(s) — This involvesboth knowledge about yourself (who am I? what am I passionate about?) andthe world (what needs are there that I can fulfill?) In The CathedralWithin, Bill Shore, the founder of Sharing our Strength, says the mainevent that propels people to act on their passions is discovering that theyhave something unique in themselves that can contribute to a solution. Soyou cannot discover this in isolation, on a mountain top. Discovering yourpurpose(s) in life comes from the interaction between who you are and whatis going on in the world. Most people are aware of themes or threads thatconnect most of their life, making them who they are: a love of nature,a passion for figuring out how things work, a love of teaching, a passionfor music. Quiet your mind and discover who is behind the chatter. In Callings,Gregg Levoy counsels us to not look for one calling but many. Ask, “Inhow many ways can I…”

“Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware.”

— Martin Buber

2. Discover your intention — Next you haveto figure out what you want to have happen. This may seem like an easy stepbut it is often not. Examine your motivation. Why do you want this? Be awareof the deeper need behind your intention. Sometimes this process takes minutes,sometimes a lifetime.

“You become extremely clear about what it is you want to do. Why is it you want to do what you do? How is it a reflection of your values? How does it relate to your unique purpose in life? What is it that you want to accomplish in society? Think about all the inherent contradictions that are there and then, if possible, reconcile them.”

–Srikumar Rao, professor of business creativity at Columbia and Long Island University

3. Visualize it manifest — If your intentionhas a clear end-state, it can help to visualize it in some detail. Whatwill it look like, smell like, feel like? What will you be wearing whenyou do this work? What will your customers or clients do? Where will yourintention show up in tangible form in letters or policies or purchasingdecisions?

“I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie.”

Jack Nicklaus, professional golfer

4. Create an icon — Create some visible,tangible artifact that symbolizes your vision. It might be a collage, anobject, a phrase. Place this where you can contemplate it daily. (One governmentalagency in New Mexico summarized their strategic plan into a picture andprinted it on mousepads for every employee.)

5. Put your intention “out there”— It seems to help if you take tangible actions, do something to stir theuniverse. Many consultants talk about “serendipitous marketing.”If you just sit in your office, no new business comes your way. But if youget out and talk to people, work will come your way (but usually from somewhereelse, unrelated to your conversations.) So talk to people about your intention,take some action toward it. You don’t need a detailed action plan but investsome energy into your intention. Make a verbal commitment. Say, “Iam ready and am willing to take whatever is next.”

6. Reflect on what happens — Finally, beobservant of what comes next and how you feel about what happens. View obstaclesas part of your journey. Stay firm in your intention but flexible in yourmeans.

“Yet, in this state of intention we must have the integrity, as Francisco Varela puts it, to stand in a ‘state of surrender,’ knowing that whatever we need at the moment to meet our destiny, will be available to us. It is at this point that we alter our relationship to the future. When we operate with this kind of intention and in this state of open commitment, we see ourselves as an essential part of the unfolding of the universe, of life itself and we seek to bring an unborn possibility into reality as ‘it desires,’ to serve humankind, not to serve our own narrow selfish desires.”

— Claus Otto Scharmer, MIT Sloan School of Management


Leadership in the New Economy: Sensing and actualizing emerging futuresby Claus Otto Scharmer. Excellent intellectual thinking, dovetailingintention setting with a business context. <;

Callings: Finding and following an authentic life by Gregg Levoy.Great book on how to discover your callings (plural) along with the upsideand downside.

Wishing Well: Making your every wish come true by Paul Pearsall,Ph.D. Parts of the book are annoyingly redundant but it provides an interestingreview of the research and helpful rules to guide your wishing.
The Mental Edge: Maximize your sports potential with the mind-body connection,by Kenneth Baum. While the book is written with athletes in mind, the lessonsabout how to use relaxation and mental rehearsals to improve performanceare easily adapted to other areas of our life.

Tibetan Wisdom for Western Life, by Joseph Arpaia, MD and LobsangRapgay, Ph.D. Since attention is an important part of intention, this bookprovides clear instructions for how to improve your ability to concentrateand meditate.

The Passion Plan: A step by step guide to discovering, developingand living your passion by Richard Chang. Easy to follow instructionsand activities for individuals that would work as well with groups.

Visioning: Ten Steps to Designing the Life of Your Dreams by LuciaCapacchione, Ph.D., ATR. If you want some ideas about how to get out ofyour head to discover what’s in your heart, this book has some nice exercises,including making a collage, writing with your non-dominant hand, etc. Manycan be done as groups.

Team Booster Activity –$10 US

Setting Intentions at Work

If you want to experiment with these ideas in your team or department, order our Team Booster activity on “Setting Intentions at Work.” This provides you instructions for how to discover your collective passions, make a collective wish, and follow up on the results. Simply send an email to requesting a copy. We’ll send you the Booster with an invoice. Sorry no returns since it’s an electronic file.

Click here if you want to see PastIssuesof the AXIS Advisory tosee articles on such topics as virtual teams and technology, “green”practices, helping managers adapt to their new role, and peer review practices.







© Copyright AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc. Allrights reserved.


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