The Merlin Exercise | A Roadmap to Goal Achievement

The Merlin Exercise

During a recent Leaders Ought To Know® on-site retreat, one of the participants presented an excellent challenge.  “How,” he asked, “Can management give some kind of arbitrary goal, such as increasing sales by 20% next year, without providing a roadmap to get there?”

Our participant is coming face-to-face with a fact of organizational change.  Studies by Columbia University asked the question, “Which is more difficult?  To articulate the desired future, or to describe the path to get there?”  The answer, of course, as our friend instinctively knows, is that the path is much more challenging.

I once had a client who said, “I don’t care about process; I only care about results!”  That is a fairly naive statement.  As my partner Phil Van Hooser says, “That’s like saying  I don’t care about chickens, I only care about eggs.”  Specifying a goal without providing a roadmap to get there is based on similar naive thinking.

An automotive manufacturer client announced two years ago its intentions to grow its market share substantially by 2014.  We immediately began asking about roadmaps: Would the number of dealerships be increased?  Was the expectation that each dealership would be able to sell more cars?  What was planned to reach these aggressive goals?  Unfortunately there were no real answers and the manufacturer finds itself today in the unenviable position of having to revise its projections down significantly.  And in a rather humiliatingly public way.

So how do we go about creating a roadmap?  I use what I call the Merlin Exercise.  Merlin, you’ll recall, was the legendary magician who helped King Arthur.  In T. H. White’s book, The Once and Future King, Merlin was portrayed as moving backward through time.  Merlin knew when King Arthur’s next attack would come — because he could remember the future — but he didn’t know what he had for breakfast because it hasn’t happened yet for him.  The Merlin Exercise involves “remembering the future.”

Think about the goal that has been set.  “Remember” when you got there, when you achieved the goal.  Now think about what it would be like when you were “half way there.”  Whatever the time frame, ask yourself what would be happening, what tasks would be completed, and what would be left to do.  Now bring the time frame even closer, say, a quarter of the way there.  Think about what people will be doing, what you’ll be seeing, how things will be going.  Continue this process, bringing things closer to the present time.  Soon you’ll recognize what needs to happen right away, what you need to do to get started.

I’ve found the Merlin Exercise to be a useful way to help with the challenging process of developing a roadmap to a goal.  If you’d like to learn more, check out this video.

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