Reaching for the Stars

stars and mountaintopThere are several platitudes about goal setting that reference the stars and the moon:

  • – “Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star.”  has been attributed to Peale, Littrell, and Brown
  • – I have also heard “Reach for the stars and land on a mountaintop”

The two above are actually quite different.  One says to shoot for something really hard and maybe you will find you accomplish something even greater.  The other says to shoot for something impossibly hard and be satisfied with a smaller, but still significant accomplishment.

They are both recipes for failure.  They were coined at a time when there was much less data that we could track about our progress.  In both cases the resources are lined up in a different direction than they are moving…not good.

Think about if you had such a slice in golf that you had to line up at a 45degree angle to where you wanted to hit the ball.  Is it a better idea to continue with that approach or should you work to fix the slice?

Some of the damages that come from these philosophies include:

  1. miscommunication with stakeholders
  2. constant re-work of priorities
  3. demoralized staff

To be fair, there are positives:

  1. There is no risk of complacency or resting on laurels (unless the team starts to give up in despair)
  2. There are many decision points to decide which x of the >x is going to get accomplished
  3. There is tremendous pressure for efficiency in order to minimize the under-accomplishment.  Those efficiencies likely live on past the deadline

However, the above positives can still be realized without the extreme pressure of under-delivery that comes with an over-promise.  Thus, they are not worth the negatives.

Let’s examine each of the negatives…..

 Miscommunication with Stakeholders

There is a consulting adage of “Under promise and over deliver”.  This approach is the opposite of that.  You are telling people that you “want” to accomplish >x when you only have a historic or estimated capacity to reach x.

While stakeholders definitely want great things, they also want predictability.  The world is variable enough without starting off misaligned.

Alternatively, provide two sets of goals to your stakeholders: the realistic goals and the stretch goals.  Ensure that there is contingency built into your realistic goals so that if everything goes according to plan, you will be able to accomplish some of the stretch goals.

Constant re-work of priorities

When you are building plans that get you to a fixed deadline with >x accomplished and you then find yourself on a path towards x, you must constantly change that plan.  This requires significant overhead both for the people whose job it is to plan and organize, but also for the resources who are being communicated a different plan each week or month.

The three levers of resources, scope, and time will constantly be under pressure as you keep trying to squeeze >x into an x sized box.  If you don’t make the scope or resource changes, the deadline will be missed.

Demoralized Staff

Either your people were not invested in the first place (different problem) or they will now become less invested.  Nobody wants to sign-up for an impossible task unless they think somehow they can make it happen.

Most people want to be on the winning team.

If Candy Crush and Angry Birds have tought us anything is that many people are goal seekers.  They crave mini-accomplishments.  If your team is never hitting the goal, team members will start to seek their “success fix” elsewhere.

Conclusion

In this age of data abundance, you can accurately measure just about anything.  Do so.   Set goals that can be accomplished.  Don’t make them easy.  Everyone wants a challenge.  But, put the goal within reach so that your people, your organization, and your stakeholders can all feel like a success together.

How do you decide to set your goals against capacity?

Also posted on Linked Pulse if you prefer to comment there

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