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Do you ‘want’ something … or just ‘like the idea of it?’

Let’s say that someone has decided they want to get better at something. Perhaps they want to lose weight. Perhaps they want to learn a language. Perhaps they want to learn to play the guitar.

The next thing they might do is find an expert who can help them. A personal trainer. A linguist. A music teacher. They then go and find their expert. But … in the very first meeting, they tell their expert:

‘Just so you know, I am NOT going to (1) stop eating hamburgers, (2) do homework or (3) practice playing.’

It turns out that the subject of this story doesn’t really want to be fit, speak a second language or play the guitar.

People are prepared to WORK for what they WANT.

People are NOT prepared to WORK for something they LIKE THE IDEA OF.

Most definitions of the word ‘want’ revolve around the idea of ‘desire.’ Think about someone who says they want to lose weight, but won’t stop eating hamburgers every day. Do they have the desire to lose weight?


Everyone likes the idea of being fit and healthy. Not everyone has the desire to get there.

The same goes for organizations. People are really good at reading between the lines. They can quickly work out if the CEO, brigade commander, or any other boss wants something or just likes the idea of it. And this becomes a signal to everyone in that organization who is striving for recognition or their next promotion.

Think diversity in the workplace. Diversity is not just an ethical aspiration. It is a fantastic way of internally generating lots of different ideas by encouraging people from different walks of life, with different mindsets, to feel valued and welcome. But many CEO’s contributions to diversity are little more than a plethora of posters at every cafeteria or cubicle proclaiming their personal commitment to diversity. If the same CEO in surrounds them self with people that look, talk and think like them … then diversity is something they don’t really want.

I remember working on a team that was acquiring a developmental system for a ‘big’ customer. The reliability of the system was not on track to meet the requirements. We were faced with a choice. Really focus on improving reliability at the short-term expense of time and money, OR accepting a system that was going to be disastrously expensive to maintain throughout its useful life.

So what did the boss of the ‘big’ customer go with? They invented a third option through decreasing their reliability requirements AND releasing an edict that there was also to be no increase in through-life maintenance. Simply not possible.

Our boss simply wasn’t willing to work with the contractor to improve reliability. And they weren’t personally invested in the through-life support costs. Reliability was relegated to something they liked the idea of. They didn’t want it. And everyone knew it.

So if you are that CEO, general or boss, how can you tell if you really want something for your organization, or if you just like the idea of it? Simple.

Ask yourself if you are focused on the thing you want, or the list of things you are not prepared to CHANGE.

This can be sneaky – because that list of things you aren’t willing to change might be private or subconscious. But if you want to optimize revenue or mission effectiveness through improving reliability - but you expect everyone else to do the work – then reliability is probably only something you like the idea of.

And everyone around you will know it.

Does this sound familiar? Do you have any similar stories? We would love to hear them.

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