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The Insidious Danger of Drifting Goals

It all starts with what we believe is a temporary downturn. Say, there’s a global pandemic that has shut down large sectors of the economy. Or maybe our nation is (Br)exiting a trade agreement that has defined its economics for the past thirty or so years. Or say our customers have become erroneously enamoured of a shiny new, yet (we believe) inferior, market entrant.

No one panics because we can fix the issue in the long-term. Meanwhile, in the short-term, we decrease our sales targets. Or put off that launch date. Or maybe, we delay that fund raise until the market looks better.

In each case, we move the goalposts and our sense of urgency drops.

Yet, the downturn persists.

Now what?

Resetting targets feels good because in a way, it fixes our immediate problem – the problem that we are failing at this moment.

Fixing the real problem - the fundamental underlying one that the "temporary downturn" is going to have lasting economic impacts and that perhaps we as an organization are not equipped to manage it - takes time and effort. There’s lots of scary risk and uncertainty at play. What if we make the wrong decisions and make the problem worse? What if we try everything we can think of, and we still can’t right the ship?

So we set the targets lower still, ensuring that we will be “successful”. Maybe, we even give out bonuses based on the lower targets. We can't punish the team for things that are out of their control after all. Our sense of urgency drops further still.

Now we’re managing decline. And like a frog in a pot of water that’s slowly coming to a boil, we're not yet fully cognizant of our predicament.

We're in a nasty, self-reinforcing loop. We lower the targets some more and the decline persists. Our best employees become frustrated and eventually leave the organization. They don’t want to manage decline. They want to build and grow things.

Over time, Drifting Goals can become a part of an organization’s culture. No one takes targets seriously. No one thinks it’s their job to reverse the trend. Good results are seen as temporary blips or lucky breaks, so no one bothers to determine how to duplicate them. Poor results are seen as the way things are.

As you can imagine, it’s a depressing place to be. It fosters a sense of helplessness. It leads to in-fighting. The company becomes very insular. We may find ourselves accommodating poor performance from our employees rather than holding them to appropriate standards, or we may find that deadlines or launch dates are continuously shifted with little or no repercussions. Product and service quality decreases until finally a tipping point is reached where customers, investors and other stakeholders abandon us.

Drifting Goals is a choice. We may pretend that outside forces are to blame and that things are beyond our control, but the truth is, Drifting Goals is what happens when we choose to look away. When we choose to prioritize our own personal comfort over the truth of what’s happening around us.

What Can You Do About Drifting Goals?

1. Anchor goals to what needs to happen for the company to first survive in the short-term and then thrive in the long-term.

2. Focus on growth and possibilities, not a delayed "return to normal".

3. Plan for transition. The same old, same old won’t do. You’ll need new ideas and new ways of doing things. It might also require new people.

4. Create an inspiring vision of where the organization is going. Communicate it constantly and consistently both internally and externally.

5. Create a rallying cry as a bridge between long-term goals and short-term tactics. Focus on the single most important thing the organization must get done to succeed in the short-term and then rally the team behind it. Once that's achieved, create a new rallying cry.

6. Be realistic about how long it will take. Set benchmarks for bonuses accordingly. Unrealistic timelines and targets will kill innovation.

This is hardcore leadership stuff. It requires us to be aligned with our core values and purpose. We must be expansive in nature, despite the contraction around us.

Hey, here’s an idea! Sign-up for my weekly newsletter (green box at top right of your screen on desktop, or under this post on mobile) so you’ll never miss a post. I promise I’m not a spammy nightmare. Once per week, and that’s it.


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