Here is an excerpt from article written by Robert I. Sutton for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please visit http://blogs.hbr.org/.
* * *
Recently, I posted a list of “12 Things Good Bosses Believe.” [http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/05/12_things_that_good_bosses_bel.html]. Now I’m following up by delving into each one of them. This post is about the third belief: “Having ambitious and well-defined goals is important, but it is useless to think about them much. My job is to focus on the small wins that enable my people to make a little progress every day.”
Managers often think their job is to inspire their people with “stretch goals” — clear objectives that will be hard to meet, but that would have a dramatic impact on the organization’s success. That this kind of ambitious goal-setting is a hallmark of effective leaders, and of high-performance organizations, is an old theme in behavioral science. Edwin Locke and Gary Latham in particular have produced a brilliant and compelling stream of research over the past 35 years demonstrating that difficult, specific goals lead to better task performance. In a more popular mode, Jim Collins has convinced thousands of managers of the value of “BHAG’s” — big, hairy, audacious goals. There’s no denying that ambitious goals are essential to motivation. But my view is that the best bosses don’t spend much time thinking or talking about them. There are a few reasons for this:
[Sutton identifies three. Here’s the first.]
They are strategically obvious. What if I asked you to guess at the stretch goals of various teams, ranging from the grizzled sailors on the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, to the U.S. Soccer team now competing for the World Cup in South Africa, to a giant retailer like Target Stores? You wouldn’t know the exact numbers to name, but you’d know the nature of their goals: the captains are trying to catch x tons of crab, the soccer team is trying to win y number of games (culminating with the championship), and Target is trying for a z percent gain in market share, or profit margin, or stock price. Even if a goal is a more noble, relating to employee retention, for example, or carbon footprint reduction, it will not be surprising. For most organizations in most industries, success is measured on well-known and accepted yardsticks. Sure, there are differences and they do matter, but ambitious goals rarely send people in directions they didn’t realize they needed to go.
In Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst, I share a story from a CEO I know who set a monumental revenue target for his organization. The number he named was so high that it would take the most successful sales campaign the company had ever run to make it. Adding to the pressure, the business was on the ropes. It had lost some key accounts, and nothing less than the revenues he targeted could save it from large-scale layoffs.
Few on his team were inspired by the audacity of the goal. Immediately fears were expressed that it could never be realized given the severe time pressure, limited resources on hand, and tough market conditions. But rather than simply repeat the do-or-die imperative, the CEO led a discussion of what it would realistically take to make the campaign a big success. Before long, the list of “to do’s” had stretched to over 100 tasks, causing even more doubts to be vocalized. The turning point came when the CEO asked the group to sort that list into “hard” and “easy” tasks. When a task was declared easy, he asked who could do it and by what date. Within 15 minutes, the group realized that they could accomplish over half the tasks in just a few days. The anxiety level dropped, and stage was set for a succession of small wins.
* * *
To find out how it turned out, read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please visit http://blogs.hbr.org/.
Robert I Sutton’s research focuses on the links (and gaps) between managerial knowledge and organizational action, organizational creativity and innovation, organizational performance, and evidence-based management. He as published over 100 articles and chapters in scholarly and applied publications. He has also published eight books and edited volumes, including The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Firms Turn Knowledge Into Action (Harvard Business School Press) that he co-authored with Jeffrey Pfeffer. His most recent book is Weird Ideas That Work: 11 ½ Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation (The Free Press), which was selected by the Harvard Business Review as one of the best ten business books of the year and as a breakthrough business idea. His next book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst, will be published in 2010 by Business Plus.