Michelangelo said “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our goal is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” Such is the case with many strategic planning processes. During the annual planning process, goals, strategies, action plans and budgets are developed. It’s a neat and organized process but the implication is that when the goal is set, a plan or at least a fairly solid idea exists for how to deliver the results. Sales organizations know all to well that after they provide a sales forecast they’ll need to answer the question “What’s your plan to get it?”
The problem with this model is that the goals are based largely on what is known today. It satisfies our mind’s need for structure and certainty and enables us to complete the plan. Making matters worse is that compensation and rewards are often tied to the goal. This is certain to result in plans that are safe and achievable, but low in potential results.
High-performance individuals and organizations though, have found that break-through performance is not achieved by an attitude of determination and grit, but rather an attitude of confidence and optimism. They take on opportunities and face challenges larger than they’ve ever seen before, not with the knowledge for how they’ll accomplish it, but with the internal confidence that they’ll grow into it. They’re not intimidated by what might stop other organizations. They hear the same news, live in the same economy and face the same problems, but they do so with a calm resolve and belief that they’ll find the answer. It’s not risky when they know they can do it.
Goals and Motivation
One of the wonderful characteristics of human beings is that we are goal oriented. We are able to achieve great results when we’re motivated. The more attractive and exciting the goals, the more energy and creativity we have to solve them. Goals set in the context of what we “believe” we can accomplish are not motivating goals. In an effort to make goals achievable, we often remove the catalyst to motivation and energy. When the internal self-efficacy of an organization is low, it’ll expect little of itself. For our own sanity and to avoid disappointment, we won’t let ourselves expect something we don’t believe we can create. Therein lies the big problem with large, seemingly impossible goals. If the expectations and confidence of the organization are low, so will be its reach and results. The goals of the organization will be limited and the creativity and energy of the organization will match what, in its collective mind, it believes it can cause to happen.
Setting large goals throws our system out of order. They challenge what we “know” and push us beyond the boundaries of our comfort zone. They send us on a journey where the path and outcome are unknown. It creates a problem for us, a gap between what we believe we can accomplish and the picture of a challenging but potentially beneficial future. It’s a gap that our minds are programmed to close. If we’re drawn to the challenge we’ll move forward into uncharted territory seeing solutions and possibilities beyond the tried and true. But if the goal is too intimidating or unattractive, we’ll move backward to the old performance level, fully able to rationalize the decision. We get either drive and ideas to move toward what we want in the future, or ideas and drive to stay where we are.
The Role of Coaching and Leadership
The solution is to build an organization of individuals with high self-confidence and a strong belief and expectation in their ability to achieve great outcomes. This is arguably the most important coaching responsibility leadership has. It’s a concept with tremendous potential for improving individual and organizational results but one that’s overlooked in most organizations.
Leaders should keep asking themselves, not “where do we think we will be?”, but rather “where do we want to be?” They need to keep creating gaps between where they are and where they want to be. They need to awaken the potential capability of the organization with goals that challenge the organization to go where it’s never gone before. Then, with an energized workforce, inspired by a compelling new future and encouraged by leadership, let the human creativity and energy that’s unleashed invent how it will be accomplished. With the right leadership I’ve seen organizations “surprise” themselves by accomplishing things they once thought unachievable.
Sea World doesn’t select the smartest dolphins in the ocean for its attractions. It selects dolphins and then through inspired coaching and training is able to accomplish incredible feats of performance. Likewise, truly great organizations don’t have fewer problems than other organizations. They don’t start out with the most brainpower, better employees or more money. In fact, sometimes they face incredible odds. But they have a way of looking at things, a way of seeing big challenges as exciting opportunities, and a way of hanging in there that almost guarantees success. They live by an attitude of optimism and, when challenged with an almost impossible goal, have an expectation that what they don’t know, they can figure out. It’s all a matter of attitude.