Achieving our goals in uncertain times

Special forces soldiers jump out of a planeAchieving our goals in a churning world requires a different set of skills from achieving the same outcomes in a stable environment.

What are those skills and how can we acquire them?

One answer is by benchmarking: by looking for other industries that are already expert at what we want to be able to do — then copying them. What is the best practice example of how to achieve specific, measurable goals in highly unpredictable environments?

I can’t think of a better example than elite army units. Special forces operating behind enemy lines know that no plan will survive initial contact with the enemy. But they somehow manage to achieve their objectives in highly unpredictable, even hostile environments.

They do this by defining two things. First, as well as knowing their objectives (to capture the target, gather intelligence, or whatever) they also make sure that every team member understands the wider purpose of the mission: the role it plays as part of the larger campaign. Then, when things inevitably turn out differently from expected, each person can adapt (independently) to carry out other actions in pursuit of the same purpose.

Second, each unit is given rules of engagement. These define what actions (such as returning fire) are allowed and not allowed under different circumstances. This reduces distractions, minimises unwanted outcomes, and maximises the chances of success. It keeps the unit focused on its top priorities.

By defining these two simple things — purpose and rules of engagement — elite army units are able to go into highly unpredictable, even hostile places and adapt to changing circumstances in ways that maximise their potential to achieve the outcomes they seek. We can learn from this.

For us, the equivalents of purpose and rules of engagement are our purpose and values. Purpose defines the underlying intent behind what we are doing. It keeps us pointed in a specific direction. Values define the way we choose to behave no matter what might happen around us. This keeps us centred and grounded. It also stops us getting distracted.

By being clear on purpose and values, we give ourselves the focus and the flexibility to achieve the results we seek, even in a changing world. And, unlike the army units, we get to choose our purpose and our values for ourselves.

Do you know what your personal purpose in life is? Do you know your three core values? If you did, would they help you to remain more calm and focused and bring you more energy and inspiration to achieve your goals?

Adapted from Inner Leadership: tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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Photo By USASOC News Service via

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