I did a radio interview recently (see below) where the host asked me to distinguish between goals and intentions, and to explain why I believed intentions were so much more powerful. In short, it’s because to be effective goals must also be so narrow that – while they do help direct our energies – they provide lousy guidance when life intervenes with our plans (as it inevitably does).
Intentions, by contrast, are a broad and holistic statement of what success in any given situation looks, feels and acts like. Good intention statements inform both our left and right lobes on the end goals. That way, when life throws us the curve ball we all know is coming, we know how to instinctively bob, weave or otherwise deal with the play that is unfolding instead of the one we expected. In other words, a good intention statement gives us guidance on how to react to what IS – including resetting or adjusting our goals if necessary.
Here’s a simple personal example. You may have a goal to leave the office every day by 6pm to spend time with your family. Great goal, but inevitably, if you’re in a leadership position, business intervenes with – stuff. If all you have is your goal, every time the business hands you a stinker, you fail, feel bad, piss off your spouse/boss etc. Who wants goals like that? Alternatively if you have an intention to spend as much quality time with your family as possible, you will still have to deal with those inconvenient work problems, but you have no guilt about coming into the office 30 minutes late the next morning to make time to take your kid to school. By meeting your intention, you’re giving yourself the flexibility to deal with life as it shows up while still achieving success on your own terms. Intentions give you permission to achieve success where others only see options to fail by not meeting the goal.
Organizationally it works the same way in helping align group dynamics. You may have a goal to get customer feedback. This is a fine goal and one you can accomplish, but when you’re done all you have is data, which may or may not help you understand what to do with it. “Obtaining customer feedback” does not describe a success state in the same way that an intention “we have good relationships with our customers that help us maximize customer retention” does. In the latter case, no matter what the data says, you can immediately begin acting on it and will actually see more opportunity to improve customer relations along the way – because you’re looking for ways to achieve that important end-state that the intention describes.
There’s a bit more to setting intentions than just broadly describing success. Their power comes in actually making it meaningful to the right and left sides of your brain and keeping it real so that you are always immediately – even intuitively sometimes – aware of when your current actions move you out of alignment with the desired end state. This is particularly important in a group where “misalignment signals” are likely to be picked up by someone on the team instead of you. In the situation above, for example, it’s likely an account manager who will first notice a customer relationship is in trouble. If that individual has internalized the intention (including it’s emotional resonance) for positive customer relationships, they will automatically adjust and begin to manage the account more closely when trouble signals appear. If they’re out of the loop – or just looking for customer feedback – this is less likely to occur.
It’s the leader’s job to foster group intentions and keep them real and meaningful for the team. It’s good to get experience with them personally too. Not only will they help you manage your life, you’ll become intuitively adept at using them with your staff.
Here is my radio interview on intentions, which covers the subject of Intentions vs. Goals more generally (my interview begins at min 9:45).