Joe’s Journal: On the Vital Importance of Defining Results

“Defining the task makes it possible to define what the results of a given task should be. There is often more than one right answer to the question of what the right results are. Salespeople are right when they define results as the largest sale per customer, and they are also right when they define results as customer retention. Hence the next and crucial step in making the knowledge worker productive is to define what results are or should be in a particular knowledge worker’s task.”

—Peter F. Drucker

I am writing this entry on Memorial Day, which we began commemorating after the Civil War. On this day we as a nation remember those who gave their lives for their country and for the freedom we enjoy.

We should also recall that more than 620,000 American men died during the Civil War—more than in all of our nation’s other wars combined. The large number of deaths is at least partially attributed to the inability of President Abraham Lincoln to convince his top generals that their task was to defeat the armies of General Robert E. Lee of Northern Virginia and not simply to win individual battles. Here we see, in the most dramatic fashion, Drucker’s point that “there is often more than one right answer to the question of what the right results are.”

General George McClellan did not pursue Lee’s army after winning at Antietam Creek, Maryland, in September 1862. Rather, McClellan viewed victory in the battle as the right result. Then General George Meade defeated Lee at Gettysburg in early July 1863 in one of the great battles of the Civil War, but Meade let Lee’s army retreat instead of capturing his troops and ending the war right there. Lincoln was furious that Meade did not pursue the fleeing rebels.

So you see Solomon’s wisdom at play here: “There is nothing new under the sun.” President Lincoln had a clear definition of right results but had to wait for Generals Grant, Sherman and Sheridan to understand and to achieve these results in 1865. Meanwhile, the cost in lives lost was enormous.

—Joe Maciariello