A goal post

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.

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  1. I can't remember who said it but you don't shoot for the moon, you shoot a little higher. If you fall short, you still hit the moon anyway.

  2. Much depends on who you're dealing with; what the goal is for.

    If you have a team of talented professionals, aim high. I love preposterous goals for myself (I released 6 books simultaneously on 11/11/11.)

    Beginners need different handling. They need falling-off-a-log easy, the power of small wins.

    I'd guess most of your audience is the right fit for big, audacious, perhaps even hairy, goals.

    What a groovy video. Bass uke looks like an Ashbory bass, with rubber band strings and piezo-transducer pickups. I, of course, want one. Yesterday.

    1. I've found that even beginner teams in business benefit from a tough challenge, but if a team repeatedly fails to hit their goals they might want to create a game they can win at!

      I've also found that teams should ideally set their own goals (though of course there are specific cases where that won't work). That way they're more likely to OWN the goals. Also, the goals that a team creates for itself are usually more ambitious than ones that a senior manager creates for the team. (Funny how that works.) Obviously, in the case of larger organizations, the team goals need to be consistent with the larger organizational goals.

      So much to say in one post. More to come in my next goal post.

  3. Another great article John! Watch out for people who say be realistic, they are usually telling you can't achieve what you want. Will Smith said " being realistic is the most common road to mediocrity" The cry of the common man, the normal response. If you want things that most people don't have you have to do things that most people won't do!

    1. There’s actually a picture of me at the top, but as usual I don't show up. But there ARE advantages to being invisible, as I always say: you can get in free to all the movies you want.

      1. True enough, but I get fed up with people tripping over my feet they can't see and spilling their popcorn over me. Sometimes I think it would be better to just pay and be seen...

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