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Statue of Churchill

Capture Your Team's Imagination

John Bull
August 9, 2017
"The trouble with Churchill is that he insists on believing in victory irrespective of its possibility."

This quote by Neville Chamberlain was made on the day Churchill became Prime Minister – it was meant as an insult but it unwittingly identified the genius of his leadership.

Ask any group of managers what the most important criterion for a goal is and the majority will tell you that it has to be realistic. Ask leaders at the heart of a high performing organisation the same question and they will tell you almost the exact opposite. The most important criterion of a goal is that it challenges people and captures their imagination.

'Realistic' is hardly a word engineers working on the Concorde project would have used to describe what they were trying to do!

Sergey Brinn, co-founder of Google, identifies a 'healthy disrespect for the impossible' as one of the most important qualities of their continued success.

Setting Challenging Goals

While it is essential that the people for whom a goal is meant, believe that it is possible (or at least just about possible), the idea of realistic or achievable is often mistaken for easy. This misses the main point of a goal - to challenge people to think beyond current performance and to stimulate progress.

To build people's confidence behind a challenging goal, we should focus our energy on expanding their thinking around what is possible, not on making the goal easier.

Setting big audacious goals - and very high standards - is one of the simplest and most powerful tools a leader can use to breathe life into an organisation. They are important for three reasons:

1. They create energy -  exciting people and capturing their imagination.

"Every great achievement is precipitated by an ambitious vision or goal – usually set without any idea as to how it can be achieved - but then pursued with great energy and conviction that a way will be found.'"

Robin Herd, Senior Engineer on the Concorde Project.

Challenging goals work because they challenge and excite us.

  • In the 1980s Pepsi engaged its workforce behind the 'impossible' challenge of taking on Coke by defining a clear market segment (under 24 year olds) that they could dominate. They succeeded and for a number of years became the 'choice of a new generation'. Coke later fought back with their own ambition - 'to sell a billion drinks a day' - which led them to triple sales of their products (including healthy juices etc.) in just two years.
  • In 1999 the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) transformed itself overnight from a self confessed ‘easy to ignore group of do-gooders’ to one of the most influential charities in the UK when they set out an uncompromising statement of intent that ‘Cruelty to children must stop. FULL STOP.’ The campaign has been a phenomenal success - raising over £300 million to date, attracting 17,000 additional volunteers and putting the protection of children in need at the top of both the Government’s and public's agenda. But perhaps the most important and lasting impact of the campaign will be its impact on the culture within the team - 'The vision changed the whole psyche of the organisation; it gives our work enormous meaning, and has created a culture that is more focused, determined, and innovative.'

2. They provoke innovation - challenging people to think differently.

"The sort of action steps an organisation comes up with, the sorts of knowledge it seeks, the sorts of thinking it uses, are directly related to the size of goals pictured in people's heads."

Jack Welch, CEO and Chair of General Electric (GE).

By accepting a goal that we know cannot be achieved through our current approach, we automatically begin challenging ourselves to come up with new ideas and approaches.

  • By committing themselves to the 'unreasonable ambition' of delivering 90% of their books in under 24 hours, Amazon has developed a radical partnership model with royal mail where they complete the majority of the sorting themselves before linking up with the post's transport system. The quality of this system was made famous during the floods of 2010, when Harry Potter books got through to the blocked off village of Tewkesbury before drinking water did!
  • The ambition to 'completely eradicate both polio and malaria' from the planet has challenged aid agencies to think very differently about how to get to previously 'unreachable' populations. For example - and completely against the advice of the US and UK armed forces - in 2007 the Red Cross and Jeremy Gilley (a peace campaigner) managed to negotiate a ceasefire with the Taliban to go into villages (under their protection) and vaccinate 28,000 children in 3 days.

3. They reduce dependency on any individual leader.

One of the most important benefits of a great goal is that it serves to focus and motivate people without any further need for leadership.

  • In 1961, President Kennedy planted a seed of ambition in the NASA space programme to figure out a way of successfully putting a man on the moon before the decade was out. Less than two years later he was shot but his leadership lived on for another 6 years in the minds of every scientist working on the project.
  • To give a very different example, by challenging my children to see if they can eat 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, they take much more responsibility for this aspect of their health.

This point is particularly important for anyone who manages a team remotely. Make sure it is clear goals and standards which guide people's actions, not your direct instruction. A great test of our leadership is what happens to performance when we walk away.

Putting these insights into action:

The key characteristics of an effective goal or ambition are:

  • It must be consistent with the core values of the organisation so that it stimulates progress in the right direction. Toyota's recent ambition to become the biggest automotive company in the world overrode their traditional values around quality with disastrous results. Whereas the Starbucks goal to become the most respected brand in the world has aligned growth with their values and prompted moves like the 100% commitment to FAIRTRADE.
  • It has to connect with an existing area of strength - something we genuinely can be (and would want to be) best in the world at. I could set an 'unreasonable ambition' to win a gold medal in the 100 metres in 2020 but I am unlikely to engage behind it and am even less likely to achieve it.
  • It has to excite people, to tap into something they can get passionate about. Just thinking about the goal should create energy. This also means everyone in the team needs to be able to see how their role relates to the goal, how they can contribute to it and make a difference.
  • It has to be specific and challenging enough to create a positive creative tension between the ambition and where we currently are.

Bringing goals to life

While engaging people behind the goal is important, it will only really come to life the first time you sit down as a team to review your progress against it. By itself, a goal only provides half the ingredients to create positive pressure for performance - the other half is created by accountability.

Without an effective process for reviewing progress against the goal, and involving people in that review, it will very quickly become a 'slogan' in peoples minds - and slogans create nothing but scepticism.

There is a great scene in the biopic Apollo 13 which highlights this point brilliantly. Gene Kranz (the flight controller in Houston) is with his engineers reviewing their estimate on how far they can get the craft back before it runs out of oxygen. The engineers enter the meeting under the assumption they've done everything they can, before Kranz challenges them with 'Gentlemen that is unacceptable'. For the first time his goal 'to get the men back alive' is real. The energy and innovation in the team goes through the roof after that point.

Where could challenging goals take your organisation?

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