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.
Paul Spiegelman and Bo Burlingham have created a truly unique organization, the not-for-profit “SmallGiants SM Community in the U.S. In fact there are several others in Brazil, Germany, Romania, Japan, Vietnam, South Africa, and the UK, with others being established.Bo Burlingham joined Inc. magazine in January 1983 as a senior editor and became executive editor six months later, a position he held for the next seven years or so. In 1990 he resigned and became editor-at-large. He subsequently wrote two books with Jack Stack, The Great Game of Business and A Stake in the Outcome. More recently, he wrote Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big and The Knack: How Street-Smart Entrepreneurs Learn to Handle Whatever Comes Up, co-authored with Norm Brodsky. He was also a founder, with Tom Peters, of PAC World, “a weird international networking group that gave him a chance to meet a lot of zany—and brilliant—people from around the globe.”
Paul Spiegelman is the CEO and founder of Beryl, the nation’s leading health care-exclusive call center. He is also the author of Why is Everyone Smiling? The Secret Behind Passion, Productivity and Profit. In it, he explores how businesses can create a corporate culture that fosters creativity, builds employee and customer loyalty and benefits the bottom line.
I urge you to visit http://www.smallgiants.org/home.php to check out the wealth of resources as well as to sign up for e-mail updates and become an active member of this very special community, one made up of companies and individuals who are focused on running businesses that succeed by adhering to these principles of “business mojo”:
• A clear understanding of company identity and goals
• Passionate belief and action from leadership about the company’s purpose
• Solid and sustainable financial model
• Dedication to building an intimate relationship with the community
• Agreement of principles and practices with supply chain participants
• Willingness to focus on the employee and the workplace as the primary method for meeting customer needs
Cheryl offers: As practitioners of change leadership, our focus is not so much on the change management process itself as on what kind of leader is required to really create change that lasts. We love John P. Kotter’s book, The Heart of Change because it touches all aspects of change, including the need to get employees emotionally invested to create the energy needed to change. With the new “normal” of our economy, one thing I fear will not change is that as markets dictate consolidation, the percentage of Merger and Acquisition failures will remain constant. You see, acquisition happens. One company is bought by another. Seldom does a merger happen. Oh, assets get combined, leadership is chosen and redundancies eliminated; and the real heart of change that makes M&A’s worth the price paid is the MERGER of cultures. Most leaders pay more attention to the organization chart, press releases, and employment contracts than the real need to enroll employees in the changes. The fact is, about 70% of mergers and acquisitions fail. Almost 100% of the failures can be traced to not asking everyone to pay equal attention to the M as well as the A. Communication is the leadership’s responsibility in times of change; it becomes their legacy.
Sara adds: I was with IBM when it acquired Lotus. I coached a number of people on the Lotus development team and was struck by how victimized they felt. The acquisition had occurred, but for them, there was no merger. In the shadow of those memories, I turned to Adam Kahane, author of Solving Tough Problems . Kahane is known for his work in helping create unity in places like South Africa. He states, “There are two ways to unstick a stuck problem. The first is for one side to act unilaterally – to try imposing a solution by force or violence.” That’s how I read the press release in mergers like IBM acquiring Lotus or Oracle acquiring Sun Microsystems. Kahane goes on to add, “The second way to unstick a problem is for the actors to start to talk and listen in order to find a way forward together.” My opinion? Acquisitions are financial agreements to acquire assets; mergers require people to work with other people intentionally and creatively.