Setting Goals and Realizing them is Critical to Success . . . Maybe

Sometimes the worst thing about having a goal is attaining it.

We live in a goal-oriented society. All of us – individuals and organizations – are expected to delineate, plan and commit to achieve certain specific, end-point goals. And if we don’t have these detailed goals or can’t explain what they are, it must be because we are a laggard at best, a shirker at worst. Not only that, but we are expected to advertise our goals like they were plastered on a sandwich board as we hawk our plans down Main Street.

The problem with all this frou-frou is that sometimes the worst thing about having a goal is attaining it.

Don’t get me wrong, specific objectives are important; they cause us to focus our vision and effort on a specific path to reach a predetermined goal. But as helpful as goals can be to identify what we want to accomplish, they can also inhibit our ability to achieve our true potential which is likely to be much greater.

This happens all the time when goals are viewed like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: When we find it, there’s nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the spoils of success. In other words, all too often we mistakenly believe that achieving goals is the end of the effort, when goals  should be treated only as signposts on a long road that ends only when the future ends. In fact, the only goal that should be so finite is the goal to stay alive till we die.

The Ghost of Goals We Relied On

All too often we witness an individual or organization marshal their ideas, plan  their plans and work diligently to achieve the goal of success as they define it. Then, when the goal is reached and success achieved, they give it all back.  I call this the “agony of success.” What most don’t realize (especially those who have not been successful) is that as difficult as success is to achieve, it is even more difficult to maintain. Once a goal has been achieved, there is a natural inclination to ease up the throttle and become complacent. If you need any evidence of this phenomenon, just compare a list of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies of today with the same list 10, 15 or 25 years ago. This list is in a constant state of flux and new companies edge out old ones that have lost their way.
And it’s easy to identify individuals or companies who have lost their way. They are the ones that have set and attained specific goals for success, but then let up and lose it by falling prey to that aforementioned “agony.” They find that they are too busy with success to take the time to do the important little things they took the time to do in the past. They become smugly satisfied with what worked to achieve yesterday’s goals, rather than trying to find new things that will work tomorrow. They become more interested in process and procedure, than in performance. They begin to define success by what they have done, rather than what they could do.

Avoiding the Agony

The only way to avoid the “agony of success” is to set goals that are clear and understandable, but not actually attainable. Specific objectives should be set to measure explicit progress toward a goal, but the goal itself should always be illusive and just out of reach,  forcing you to always strive for more and to never be satisfied.

One example of just such a goal that would provide a target to aim for and, at the same time, inoculate against the “agony of success,” would be:

                     Always make history.

That means being focused on always doing something new, discovering a better way to do things, finding new challenges and never being satisfied with the history that you have already made. It is important to understand that if you are not making history, you are history. So having a goal of always making history imbues one with the understanding that continued success is not based on what you have done in the past, but what you will do in the future. The fact is, if your goal is to always “make history,” you will continue to win because you will never be content with what has been won.

Another example of a goal that is not specific or attainable, but which clearly offers an aiming-point for success is:

                       Always try to get better.

If you are constantly focused on the goal of “getting better” at everything you do, you will always be moving forward toward success. But because you have not limited yourself with a predetermined definition of success, the goal will always be in front of you; challenging you to do more and be better. If your goal is to always get better, no matter how successful you become, you will never fall prey to the “agony of success,” because success will be defined by how good you can be, not how good you have been.

Another big advantage that comes from having goals that can never be specifically quantified, copied or attained is that you are able to write your own rules and define your own success, rather than being influenced or controlled by the attitudes, expectations and actions of others. The most obvious example of this is the dreaded “peer group pressure.” Individuals and companies shackled to the traditional concept of setting specific, end-game goals become obsessed comparing their performance with those of peers in their group. Peer group comparison becomes an artificial – and often misleading – way to determine if their goals will lead to success, because it is a success defined by what others are doing. As if that were really important.

For those with goals such as “always making history” or “always getting better,” there is significant peer pressure, except the pressure comes from your own performance and your definition of success. Fact is, if you are always making history and always getting better at what you do and how you perform, there will never be a need to compare yourself with others. In reality, you will become the “peer pressure” for others who will never be able to keep up, because they are mired in the limitations of specific goals. With the right type of goals, you will win, not by being on a par with the competition, but by being the competition. And you will never fall prey to the complacency that can trigger the “agony of success.”

And the Moral of the Story …

It is great to have goals, but it is never good to have goals that are just goals. If a goal becomes the end, rather than a successful path to the end, it can inhibit, even limit the potential for true, lasting success. The most effective goal is one that you can explain and understand, but is never finite and constantly challenges you to do more. This allows you to measure yourself and your success based on the ultimate potential of your commitment and talent. When you do that, there is no limit to your success, because you have not put a limit on your success.

Take this Job and Shove It . . .

“I’ve seen a lot of good folk die
Who had a lot of bills to pay
I’d give the shirt right off of my back
If I had the nerve to say .. Take this job and shove it ….”

— Johnny Paycheck

Have you ever felt this way about your job? Have you ever dragged your body out of bed on a cold, dark morning and the most positive thing you can grumble to yourself is, “This day is one day closer to the day I will never have to go to this job again”?

If so, welcome to the club. You are an official member of the largest unofficial club in America – The “Next Check Club” where card-carrying members stay at their jobs primarily to get their next check. The club even has its own secret password so members can recognize each other. You know a fellow club member when you ask a friend, “How’s work?” and the response is, “Well, it’s a job!”

Is this what you had in mind for a career when you got out of school? I doubt it.

Did you think that when you put forth all that effort to prepare yourself for a career and personal advancement that you would end up working in a corporate culture that, at best, could be described as a stagnant pond? In a company where management acts like a mafia group that collaborates among themselves; a management interested only in maintaining their own power structure?

Or maybe you were not expecting to work in a business where management comes across as all-loving and caring on the surface, but they act as though they couldn’t care less about you and your fellow employees? Do you feel frustrated to work  in a company where management acts as though the only solution to any problem is to downsize or outsource while skirting honest communication with employees? Do you sometimes find yourself just going through the motions at work and trying to keep a low profile for fear that you will be the next one to be outsourced?

Have you found yourself trapped in a corporate culture that could best be described as a hornet’s nest? Where all the rules, procedures and corporate dictates are subject to the whim of management at any given moment?

Do you feel that management is not interested in your ideas and if you offer them, they seem threatened and insulted? Have you come to recognize that your job security does not really depend upon your talent and effort, but on the Peter Principle where top managers rise to the level of their incompetence and treat you the same way?

Worst of all, do you feel totally depressed because family responsibilities, the pay you are receiving and the state of the economy has you trapped in your job like a terrorist caged in Guantanamo? (Who knows, maybe water-boarding is a trifle better than the treatment you’re getting!)

Some might read this blog and suggest it is all made up – no job environment could ever be this bad – but I bet many of you are nodding your heads “yes” in recognition of the truth. Fact is, the corporate culture I describe here is more the norm than the exception . . . and you know it!

Raise Your Hand if You Would Like Something Better

If you have not already given up and given in – surrendered your future and happiness to a group of bureaucratic, incompetent, insincere and insecure managers — you should make a solemn promise to yourself to do something about it—before it is too late.

  • If you could find a situation where you, your effort and your talent are recognized, appreciated and rewarded, would you raise your hand?
  • If you could find a place where communication was open, consistent and honest, would you raise your hand?
  • If you could find a place where your interests, the interests of management and the company were all in parallel – where no one wins unless everyone wins – would you raise your hand?
  • If you could find a place where risk-taking, innovation, creativity and interaction with management is sought and encouraged, would you raise your hand?
  • If you could find a place where you feel that you make a difference and the difference you make is encouraged and rewarded, would you raise your hand?
  • If you could find a place where you are rewarded for the value you add to the organization – rather than to whose butt you kiss – would you raise your hand?

And the Moral of the Story …

I know it may seem like these are just Fantasyland or fairytale dreams, but there have been in the past, are now and could be in the future, corporate cultures that operate in a way that would make you want to raise your hand to join. Certainly these cultures are the exception rather than the rule of corporate life, but it is worth the effort to seek them out. It might seem like a risk to join a company with this type of culture – especially if it were a new one – but be honest with yourself and recognize that it is even more of a risk to remain trapped in your current situation.

The key is to be open-minded, observant and have the nerve to raise your hand when the call is made. Will you be one of those who has the courage to break out of the trap of the business world as others want it to be and seek a situation where you have the power to make the future what you want it to be?

The Strongest Inhibitor of Innovation is Contentment

How Savvy Business Managers Avoid Being Relegated to the Herd

If you accept the way it is done, because it has always been done that way, then all you will ever be able to do is what has already been done. Form followed seeks to repeat what has been done; while innovation followed seeks to find what could be done. Innovation is the way to lead the herd, not be part of it.

Examine any successful company that has fallen behind or failed. Most often you will discover that failure came, not because they stopped doing what they had been doing, but precisely because they were content to keep doing what they had been doing. In a word, they failed to innovate.

In business innovation is the only way for leaders and companies to respond to the evolution of how things should be done. In nature, all living species must learn to evolve and adopt or become extinct. So too in business, the failure to innovate, to evolve and adapt, is a death knell.

If failure to innovate is seen as the curse of ongoing business success, why, then, don’t all business leaders make innovation a fundamental plank in their business culture? Simple. Many managers claim to understand the importance of innovation, but in reality, they desperately fear it since innovation means to do what has not been done. The truth is, one cannot be innovative without being out there and alone; the extent of the aloneness depends on the extent of the innovation. The more innovative the act, the more completely alone one is.

That’s why most managers find it is easier and certainly safer to do what they have always done or worse,  joining the herd and following what others are doing. Recognizing and embracing innovation is a risk, but not nearly so much as rejecting it. As Will Rogers said, “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is.”

Kodak Offers Valuable Lessons

It has become a cliché now, but Kodak is the classic example of a company that Kodakwas penalized with a loss of relevance for its failure to successfully innovate. The company was, for decades, the very icon of photographic imagery, the epitome of corporate branding: Kodak was photography. However, when the innovation of digital photos began to take hold, Kodak obstinately clung to its core business of film photography. The result was that Kodak became an afterthought and a follower, not a leader.

The irony is that Kodak was actually one of the first innovators in the development of digital photography and even today the company holds many of the most important patents in the field. Kodak’s failure came not from the inability to innovate, but from a failure to follow through on that creative promise and firmly implement its innovations. As John Maynard Keynes noted, “The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” The management of Kodak was content with what they had done and this mentality prevented them from using the innovations that their own company had developed as a way to do more than they had done. As a result, Kodak ceased to lead the herd and became subsumed by it.

Companies reject innovation for the very reason they should embrace it. Innovation means being different and most managers fear being different. Instead, like a pack of shrill eunuchs, they seek the perceived comfort and security of the “peer group,” rather than embracing the risk and challenge of being out front. They are, in essence, in love with the past and fearful of the future; and with that attitude they forfeit the future to others, because the future belongs to those who get there first.

A More Contemporary Example

Recently, I was witness to just this type of diminutive mind-set regarding innovation. A large investment group – with some investments in insurance – asked me to help them explore how they might play a larger role in the insurance industry. These were well-intended, smart people, but the discussions were frustrating, both for the group and me.

Before making their initial investments in the insurance industry, they completed a thorough and detailed due diligence into how the industry operated and its products. Now that they had jumped in and purchased a couple of insurance companies, they wanted to learn how to increase the growth of the companies and play a larger role in the industry. This is where we ran into problems.

This group was literally looking for me to tell them how their companies could do better by doing more of what the competition was doing. Believe it or not, their idea of innovation was to research the best-selling products of other companies and copy them. It was like speaking to the dead when I suggested they should look for what the other companies are not doing, and do that.

When the idea of developing and offering different and innovative products was brought up, the reaction was traditional. To the tune of “everyone does it this way,” I heard – “That won’t work.” “How do you know it will work?” “Why aren’t other companies doing this?”

This group had made large investments in these companies and they were seeking to mitigate their risk by learning what other companies were doing and doing the same. What this group did not realize was that the biggest risk they were taking was the risk of not being different. One does not lead by following, but by innovating.

And the Moral of the Story is …

There are a myriad excuses – especially in difficult economic times – that can be offered as reasons for a failure to have an innovative mind-set: innovation is long term, it is expensive, its results are uncertain, it takes focus off what is already being done successfully and it may require the cost and complexity of changing existing systems. Exactly!

The fallacy in this thinking is that innovation will come, whether we want it or not. The French were content to hide behind their Maginot Line, thinking they were safe from German invasion. They were safe from the way things had been, but due to innovation, they were vulnerable to the way things had become; and paid a dear price for that mentality. The true discomfiture that comes with a failure to seek innovation is not that one will be left behind, but that one will be left out.

Those with an innovative mind-set operate in the present but live for the future. They incessantly challenge themselves and their companies to seek out what has not been done and ask why it can’t be done. Better yet, they relentlessly search for the way to do what has not been done. For them, their contentment is their discontent with what has not been done.