Followers of popular business books will recall the BHAG—the Big Hairy Audacious Goal—proposed by James Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last. These goals are long-term, viewed as a long shot by outsiders, but considered possible by insiders. They act as a unifying vision for the company, much as Lencioni’s “Rallying Cry” did in the last myth.
This kind of overarching, companywide, long-term goal is great, although, given how “goal” is commonly used at work, I’d prefer to call it a “measurable vision.” Great executives set these, communicate them, and stick with them.
But most of the goals we have in companies aren’t like that. They tend to be more tactical, more operational, and shorter term. You can’t have a BHAG on service level compliance—BHAGs are a brass ring for the company overall, which service levels most decidedly are not. So executives should stay away from these operational goals.
Why? Because they’re a means to an end—a way of achieving the BHAG. And it’s the people actually doing the work who are in the best position to know how to get there, and how to hold themselves accountable to the work.
Those of you who have been to a KCS Foundations or Design Workshop may remember the Process and Change exercise we do with a ball. While I’m not going to spoil it for future participants, I’ll say that the team estimates its own ability to improve its processes, and, especially after a few iterations, it’s remarkably good at setting its own goals. The team is better that I as the facilitator would be, and I’ve led the exercise tens of times. But they have a secret ingredient that I don’t have: they know each other, and they have hands-on experience with the process they’re measuring.
Forget the director in the corner office. It’s way better for the people doing the work to set their own goals.
Now a cynic might ask, won’t they sandbag? Won’t they set easy goals for themselves? My experience is, unless the organization has completely stamped initiative and self-respect out of a team (in which case you need a different blog, or maybe just a different job), teams will challenge themselves and each other. Almost all the people we work with want to do well, they want to feel a sense of accomplishment, and they want to be part of a high-functioning team.
Not only will teams do a better job of setting goals than their managers will, they’ll have that special something that comes from owning a goal. If you tell me I have to do something, I might just argue with you. But if I tell you I’m going to do something, just try and stop me.
So, executives should set an ambitious, exciting, and plausible vision. When it comes to setting the goals along the way, let the people doing the work take the lead. Support them. And get out of their way.