Focus on the Gap, Not the Goal

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Robert M. Tomasko

Executives who want to grow their organizations need both a goal and a sense of current reality. With only a goal, efforts are unconnected to reality and may fly around, unattached to what needs to change in order for the goal to be realized. If actions are rooted only in the current situation, however, it is easy for managers to pursue only incremental changes. When the flaws in the current situation are fixed, growth is likely to stop.

Pull vs. Push
Growth occurs when people are pulled toward something new and desired, not just pushed away from what is present but unwanted.

When you want to excite people about what the future can be, focus them on your growth goal. When you want to motivate them to work to bring the future into reality, focus them on the gap between the goal and the current situation. Creative tension involves the gap, not the goal. Growers have to be willing to tolerate this discrepancy for as long as it takes to reach their goal. Not tolerating it leads to premature closure, usually in favor of what is easiest to make happen: continuing with the status quo.

Much of the time and energy of growers is spent closing the gap. Its existence is more important than its magnitude. Fixating on the size of the gap may lead to despair and frenetic activities, not purposeful movement forward. Purposeful movement gets you closer to the goal; action just for the sake of action produces hit-or-miss results. It leads to diffuse, scattered activity, driven more by feelings of stress and anxiety about the discrepancy than by optimism and hope about the goal.

This is the emotional terrain that the grower needs to navigate, steering toward positive emotions and away from worry, fear, and anxiety.

When you articulate the gap, you set the context for judging growth strategies. It is the nature of the gap that must drive the choice of tactics to close it. If the starting point becomes "what should we do" rather than "what's the result wanted, and what distance are we from it," means become confused with ends. Tactics and techniques take on lives of their own when they lack this breach-closing context. Instead, their application becomes the de facto objective. Execution is valued, but growth is lost.

Create a Sense of Urgency
Urgency is one of the most effective drivers of forward movement to fill gaps. Articulating the gap and the goal defines a mission. If creative ideas about how to close the gap are to be generated, growers usually need to stimulate a sense of meaningful urgency about what needs to be done.

Urgency is a strong medicine, but it is one whose dosage needs to be carefully calibrated. Too little, and nothing happens. Too much, and people are likely to feel overwhelmed and despair of ever reaching the goal. An excess of urgency usually means that negative emotions, especially fear, are predominant. Guilt and shame then take over as the primary motivators, and they usually provide weak support for the kinds of creative risk-taking that growth efforts require.

Time Pressure and Creativity
Recent research at Harvard Business School offers some helpful advice for growers who are looking for the best way to use urgency. It finds that, in addition to being given in the right dosage, urgency needs to be accompanied by a certain set of working conditions if it is to really pay off. This research also confirms that positive emotions have the ability to undo the harm of negative ones. The Harvard investigators, led by Teresa Amabile, looked closely at how several hundred employees in seven U.S. companies experienced time pressure as they worked on projects that demanded high levels of inventiveness. The employees' ability to think creatively when under significant time pressure was studied by sending them daily e-mail questionnaires throughout the course of their projects.

What the researchers learned explains why some people seem to do their most creative work under tight deadlines, while most people find that this kind of pressure produces only small increases rather than real insight and creativity. Extreme time pressure leads to overwork and burnout when people feel as if they are on a treadmill and are experiencing:

  • Constant distractions and workdays fragmented into many different activities 
  • Little control over their time and many last-minute changes in plans and schedules 
  • More time spent in meetings and group discussions than is available for collaborating one on one
  • Little sense that what they are doing is especially important

On the other hand, it is possible to have identical intense deadline pressure and produce ingenious solutions and creative insights if some of these conditions are changed so that people see themselves being on a mission. These individuals feel that they:

  • Are doing something important that offers them a positive challenge 
  • Have better control of their time because they are allowed to focus on a single activity for a major portion of the day 
  • Have been freed from doing less-essential tasks 
  • Are able to set their agenda by working on issues they have identified as relevant to the mission, as well as those they have been assigned

Working conditions that allow a degree of control, autonomy and protection from short-term distractions, according to Amabile's research, help convert urgency into creativity. Without these conditions, time pressures are likely to undermine, not spur, creative thinking.

A strong sense of being on a mission feeds the "got to make it happen" drive of the innovative grower. It also distinguishes the more discovery-oriented creativity of the less time-pressured academic and R&D lab researcher from the minimal creativity usually exhibited by individuals working on autopilot with neither a mission nor a difficult deadline. The job of a growth leader is to use goals and a sense of urgency to turn off these autopilots and treadmills. The sense of hope, optimism and possibility conveyed by the grower can also act as an antidote to the anxiety and fear that otherwise tend to accompany intense time pressure.

Excerpted by permission of the publisher from Bigger Isn’t Always Better: The New Mindset for Real Business Growth by Robert M. Tomasko. Copyright 2006, Robert M. Tomasko. Published by AMACOM, AMA’s book division. For more information about this title and other AMA books, visit

About the Author(s)

Robert M. Tomasko is a specialist in organizational effectiveness and has advised companies, including Coca-Cola, Marriott and Toyota. He is a frequent speaker.