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William Easterly writes,

Set big goals. Do whatever it takes to reach them. These muscular sentences form the core of commencement addresses, business-advice books, political movements and even the United Nations approach to global poverty. In "Strategic Intuition," a concise and entertaining treatise on human achievement, William Duggan says that such pronouncements are not only banal but wrong.

Mr. Duggan, who teaches strategy at Columbia Business School, argues that the commonplace formula has it backward. Instead of setting goals first, he says, it is better to watch for opportunities with large payoffs at low costs and only then set your goals. That is what innovators throughout history have done, as Mr. Duggan shows in a deliriously fast-paced tour of history.

What are some good counter-examples? The moon landing? The Manhattan project? D-Day? Anything from the private sector?

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CATEGORIES: Business Economics

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Bob writes:

A possible example that has not yet fully come to fruition is the Segway. After extraordinary hype, almost two decades of work and $100M in development [1], it is mildly successful (~35,000 in use?). I think it's fairly easy to argue that the market niche didn't exist at the time of it's conception, and that it hasn't been the block buster it was expected to be.

Maybe in a couple more years it will be an example of a big goal achieved by monumental effort that you're looking for.

[1] -,8599,186660-1,00.html

dearieme writes:

"Set big goals. Do whatever it takes to reach them." That has an disagreeably fascist ring.

Lord writes:

I generally agree with him. Until one can see something is possible, it won't attract much attention. The problem is knowing the costs up front, and commonly underestimating them. The moon landing cost 3x projections. The bomb wasn't even capable of projection but had to be pursued at any cost. The unknowns are too great. One tries to minimize and reduce them as much as possible but they remain. Where setting goals first works is where there is no uncertainty about how to achieve them. First in autos? Just undersell everyone else. Largest market share in China? Open offices, hire people, produce and distribute product.

James D. Miller writes:

Quantum Computers

Felix writes:

A problem with the Duggan prescription is that it is easier to see the large payoffs and low costs after successfully achieving those big goals, not before.

Going in, low costs are especially hard to guess right.

max writes:

The X prize and sequencing the human genome come to mind - both from private sources.

RBC writes:

Doing whatever it takes to reach your goals limits your ability to see the opportunities around you. Much better to have a few, short-term goals that can be dropped if a really big opportunity comes along.

And I'm not just talking about marriage; it works in business too :)

8 writes:

I have no doubt that if the President and NASA said we will put a man on Pluto by 2040, they would be able to accomplish it.

For the private sector, it depends on what your idea of big is. The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are Walt Disney and Fred Smith.

Bob McGrew writes:

Google? "Indexing all the world's information" sounds like a pretty big goal to me.

Mark Seecof writes:

Federal Express (the package-delivery business). Founder Frederick Smith had to raise a lot of capital and build a big machine before he could even launch the business, because he realized that to succeed it would have to serve a bunch of cities from the very first day.

Mark Seecof writes:

Of course, big ideas can fail. Federal Express' Zapmail was a case in point.

Dan writes:

Anything from the private sector?

How about Java technology? It was initially intended to replace the Windows desktop monopoly through a very thin, network approach. You didn't need Windows, Word and Excel; all you needed was a browser to access Java based applications which resided on the network and would load onto your PC for use.

The result: Java applications are non-existent; other technologies are passing it by in terms of providing rich desktop functionality through a web-based application; and it's the most common server-side programming language in the world.

The net of it is: it’s a highly successful piece of technology, just in a way that differed significantly from its original intent.

Rimfax writes:

In "The No Asshole Rule", Sutton recommends looking for small victories and accomplishments, not only on general principle but in order to stay below the radar of assholes who tend to co opt or sabotage "big ideas".

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