Principles vs. Prescriptions

I’m terrible with setting goals (or more accurately, at staying focused on goals I’ve set). While I used to view this weakness with great frustration, I’ve since developed a different view. Most of us have been taught the value of clearly charted paths and goals. We’ve heard stories of a bankrupt business person who sets lofty goals, refuses to waver, and finally realizes his/her dreams.

Yet this isn’t reality. Life and learning do not flow along clearly defined paths. Our needs change, circumstances change, and or skills change. Various common phrases catch the spirit of this learning/life in transition: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”, “Luck is what happens when prepardness meets opportunity”. Behind each statement is the notion of personal preparedness in response to the environment in which we exist. Learning, unlike the notion of goal setting, is an intermingling (a dance) with the dynamics of our personal and work environments. Goal setting says, this is what I will achieve. In essence, it says redefine your environment to meet your desires. Life may work that way sometimes. Usually, our learning is in response to the alterartions in our environment.

If goal setting is too restrictive, what is the option? I don’t have an ideal metaphor, but the concepts of principles/guidelines/frameworks have some merit. Rather than trying to force our way goals, the focus is on creating a structure that is aware of and responsive to the environment around. When I used to spend time training staff in the hospitality field, I found it very challenging to teach “principle thinking”. Staff preferred more rigid barriers. Yet the more specific the training, the less useful it is in other situations. If I teach a staff member steps to handling a guest who is upset with a misplaced reservation, I’ve provided a prescription to a problem, not a framework transferable to other situations. Similarly, goal setting is a personal learning task that functions best according to principles (instead of prescriptions). Some one who sets a goal and achieves it by sheer focus may overlook many other more valuable opportunities.

2 Responses to “Principles vs. Prescriptions”

  1. Jeff Fielding says:

    This is a facinating dichotomy. The principle-oriented approach requires a highly functional manager/leader to effectively implement. It is a much cleaner position to say to someone “you didn’t follow the procedure correctly” compared to “your actions weren’t consistent with the overarching principles”. But as you say, a prescribed set of behaviours doesn’t build capacity within an individual to apply learnings across a broader set of scenarios, even though it is easier to manage.
    We wrestle with this alot (high-volume retail environment). I conversation I had today with a manager was imbedded in this. Gareth Morgan speaks to this as well in (I think) “Imaginization”.

  2. Yes, I’ve struggled with this, as well, especially during a period working with an organisational developer who insisted on 5 and 10-year plans. The thing that has become clear to me is that specific goals are, in fact, limiting. I prefer to think in terms of modes of being. I want to be happy, healthy, fulfilled, generous, etc. The way that happens is situational only. I can set a goal to publish a book within 5 years, but is that going to make me happy? Will it contribute anything to the world? With those parameters in place, I can constantly check in with myself and re-calibrate my path, as necessary.
    So yes, perhaps the principles you discuss are ways to translate these modes of being into tangible realities and tools to recognise whether things are going according to plan or not.