Watching a "behind the scenes" clip of Walk Off The Earth crafting a new music video, I was delighted to hear producer/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Gianni Luminati talk about the band’s goals.
It brought up a question that has been debated for (at least) a few millennia: IS IT BEST TO SET GOALS THAT ARE REALISTIC?
Entire forests have been laid waste to print the thousands of books on goal-setting that tell you to create attainable, achievable, S.M.A.R.T. goals, etc. (We'll leave aside the books telling you that goals are harmful; just try running your business without any.) But let's have this post settle the question once and for all and save further trees. (NB: eBooks will not be making print books obsolete anytime soon. You read it here first.)
So if you’re a team of top performers—whether it’s a software development team, an executive committee, a sales team, or a rock band—do you really want to be setting realistic goals? NO, NEIN, NON, NYET, BU! Of course you don’t want to set goals that are pure fantasy, but it’s important to set them way beyond what’s predictable. (As motivational author Paul Arden says, “Most people are reasonable; that’s why they only do reasonably well.”)
In the spirit of that, Luminati points out in the vid below (at the 3:35 mark): “Sometimes we like to make our goals just out of reach. You may not get it, but it’s the only way to really push yourself to the point where something really cool can happen.” Nicely put.
But I better include some caveats.
1. You should pursue your ambitious goals in a spirit of SERIOUS PLAY (the title of the innovation classic by MIT’s Michael Shrage). This means that you take the outcomes seriously, but you maintain a sense of play throughout, which enables creative thinking and experimentation. There’s nothing worse than a team with tunnel vision doing grim and lifeless work. Celebrate successes and failures. Play around with stuff. Keep it a little crazy. (I write about this in detail in my upcoming book—how rock bands are always at play when they’re at work.)
2. Tie the goals to something that matters. This is where a sense of mission or purpose is important. So what if your team or organization produces a dazzling product, slashes time-to-market, or gains a big chunk of the market? What will THAT accomplish? The original Apple Macintosh team in 1984 wasn’t just launching a new product. They were on “a mission from God”—as one team member later put it—to revolutionize computing. In Steve Jobs’ words they were out to “make a dent in the universe.” At the other end of the grandiosity scale I witnessed an employee involvement team dedicate itself to producing a company picnic in three weeks’ time (an ambitious enough goal), but their purpose was to create a WOW! event that would bring employees together for the first time outside of work and begin to create an experience of family in the organization. That got the team inspired—which helped them pull it off.
3. If your team busts its hump but fails to achieve that demanding goal, make sure that the team is acknowledged and appreciated for the work, that their failure is celebrated (really!), that lessons are learned, and that the chapter is closed. Of course this usually does NOT happen (which keeps consultants like myself happily employed). In the case of that original Macintosh team, when they failed to meet their sales target there was: (1) no formal appreciation for their work; (2) no celebration; (3) no lessons-learned huddle; (4) no closure or completion. Dispirited, the team members left Apple soon thereafter. Of course the team was eventually credited by business historians for the dent they actually made, but that was years later, after they had all moved on.
4. This goal-setting approach only works if you don’t already have a history of failing at the particular goals you’re pursuing. To give a non-business example, people who are always setting goals for weight loss (or in my case, weight gain) and failing to achieve them SHOULD be setting more realistic, attainable goals. (My new goal is to be able to turn sideways in the mirror and not disappear.)
It’s no surprise that research indicates that top-shelf performers and teams are most turned on when they're pursuing a tough—but not impossible—goal. In a time when everyone is looking to grab or retain top talent, that’s an important if obvious fact.
But, you ask, what if your team isn’t made up of top performers? Set ambitious goals anyway. Most people are hungry for a bigger game to play. With proper support they can develop into a top performing team. And make sure they learn to seriously play.
And what do you do about the naysayers who don't believe you can do it? As WOTE's Sarah Blackwood told me: "There are very few people telling us we can’t make things happen, and the ones who do, we tell them to go f#%@ themselves and then we make it happen." (WOTE seems to be writing the book on team lessons from rock!)
Speaking of which, here’s another new WOTE video.
For my interview with Blackwood, check here.