Great achievement has no road map?

The title of this post is a quote from The West Wing. It comes from a third-season episode in which a highly respected physicist is trying to get approval for billions in funding to test theories about the origin of the universe. When asked by a senator about its potential practical applications or benefits, he replies that he can’t provide any, because “great achievement has no road map”.

Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the West Wing, was obviously trying to prove a point about science in this episode. This point showed up as a recurring theme throughout the series, notably in episodes about – among other things – the US space program, scientific medical research into finding a cure for cancer, and even funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. The common thread running through all of these episodes was that, in constantly pushing for the time frame, the budget, the visible returns and the predicted outcomes, we are limiting the capacity for human potential.

And yet, we create road maps all the time. We strategize, plan, and use road maps as tools to help us get from point A to point B.

Road maps are practical tools. They help us to determine a vision, to set goals, and to come up with a tactical plan to achieve those goals – preferably within a given time frame and budget.

So the other night, when I was watching that episode of The West Wing (marathoning, actually; I’m a self-professed TWW geek, and yes, I own the seven-season box set on DVD), the quote caught my attention and I had to ask myself, is that really true? Do road maps limit our thinking? Do they constrain us to the roads we have already dug and paved, and prevent us from forging new paths?

A roadmap, by its very nature, requires us to make a series of assumptions about the landscape. While we can anticipate some changes, most of the time, when we draft a road map, we assume that today’s conditions will more or less prevail throughout the road map’s time period. When we pull out a map and highlight a route to, let’s say, drive from Montreal to Toronto, we’re assuming that the 401 will be open. We’re assuming that the car will run. We’re assuming that we can stop for gas – or Tim Horton’s – along the way.

But what if, during the drive, the landscape changed? What if traffic patterns shifted? What if, ridiculous as it may sound, cars evolved into flying hovercraft during the journey? What if teleportation were invented by the time we hit Kingston? What if the polar ice caps melted mid-journey and we all had to swim to Toronto?

Digital marketing can be bit like that sometimes. Tactical plans calling for Facebook and Twitter today might make as much sense tomorrow as yesterday’s plans involving MySpace make today. The rate of change in the digital space is rapid, and we can map trends and try to forecast them, but the game-changers will throw a monkey wrench into the plans each and every time.

And we like when this happens. Hell, we love it. We laud new, revolutionary advances every day, most of the time without having a clue what practical application they will have. We may not know how to monetize, measure or even leverage the next big thing… but we’re constantly keeping an eye out for it. Or, better yet, trying to invent it.

Think about it: inventors and early adopters of just about every technological advance have made this leap of faith. Telephones. Airplanes. Television. Personal computers. The Internet. Mobile phones and Smartphones. The iPad. I’m sure even the wheel had its detractors when it was first invented. Every time something new emerges, there’s always a majority of people saying “but I don’t understand, what does it do?” or “what’s the point?” Some of those people will come around as late adopters; some won’t. But the ones who jumped in early were usually the ones who benefited the most once things started to take off.

So does that mean that it’s useless to plan? Of course not. Road maps will help you achieve a series of well-defined, short-term goals in a relatively known landscape. In other words, they’re solid tools for good achievement. And I’m a firm believer in having a plan, in being able to justify returns, in measuring and optimizing and proving business value every step of the way. Road maps identify your destination, and help you get there.

But maybe – just maybe – Sorkin and company were onto something when they claimed that great achievement does not, in fact, have a road map. Maybe great achievement requires a whole new kind of thinking: A giant leap of faith. The kind of leap that it takes to create a whole new destination altogether.

Personally, I think we need both.