On the Olympic Medal Stand, It’s Easy to Confuse “Goals” with “Strategies”

Steve Martin’s stand-up comedy, some of which you can find on YouTube, put a brilliant twist on self-deprecating humor. Instead of presenting himself as a “suffering everyman” (think Rodney Dangerfield or Woody Allen), he created a suave, smug onstage persona. Then he became of the butt of the jokes as he repeatedly showed how he was a clueless jackass.

For instance, he would announce, “YOU CAN BE A MILLIONAIRE, AND NEVER PAY TAXES. You say, ‘Steve, how can I be a millionaire … and never pay taxes?'” Then he’d drop his voice to share the first part of his secret strategy: “First, get a million dollars….”

A friend reminded me of this bit when I pointed out a common “strategy” described by numerous winning Olympians in Rio. (No, I’m not talking about “cupping.”) Athletes often give insights into their strategy such as: “I tried to really power off the board;” or “We set out to dominate the first six points of the match;” or “I knew I had to stick the landing.”

But these statements have nothing to do with strategy. Starting off well or outperforming opponents aren’t strategies. They are goals. Goals are outcomes; things you want to accomplish. A strategy is a plan for accomplishing it, making choices that weigh probabilities and costs to achieve the outcome. Sticking a landing is an outcome. Strategy would be the specific adjustments you make to increase the probability of sticking the landing.

We all make this mistake, confusing goals and strategies. This is not an issue confined to some athletes. Have you ever known a salesperson who described their strategy for success as closing at least three big sales per quarter?  Or an executive whose strategy was to grow the company by 10% per year? These have as little to do with strategy as hitting a routine does.

By the time athletes get to the Olympics, they don’t have much more to learn. For nearly all of them, this is their one chance. The rest of us, however, have to keep learning. We need to identify good strategies, which come from making good decisions, seeing how they fare, and learning how to improve. Then our goals will be reached.