Research by the University of Scranton concluded that 92% of us making New Year’s resolutions will break them. While a more optimistic Covey study said only 77% of us will fail to follow through. Basically, as individuals, we’re as likely to fail in our initiatives as companies are in theirs. Maybe that’s because corporations are people, too; or maybe it’s that they’re made up of people. Whatever the case or the mate – as the Old Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier might say, our likelihood of success is “not very good.”
With many businesses starting their performance cycles along with the new year, our resolutions are a window on the professional goal-setting that many of us engage in with equally poor results. The commonality between personal and professional goal-setting is that we assert things we’re going to do and then don’t do them, or do them consistently enough in order to achieve our desired outcomes. Among the reasons we find it so hard to follow through on our good intentions is that we’re very good at stating broad aims, but too often we tie their achievement to unrealistic plans or plans that fail to bind us to those efforts in a way that build new habits effectively. More bluntly, we fool ourselves and those around us with what can technically be termed as ‘bullsh**.’ But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we acknowledge this tendency and draft others to help us work through and beyond the smoke screen of generality and all the reasons why we can’t do what we said we would, we’ll likely find ourselves exactly where we started when the smoke clears. That can be very demotivating, and worse for us and those who depend on us.
Basic neuroscience tells us that new habits are formed by doing new things every day for many days (often said to be 90 days) to ensure that our new habits take root. There are a gazillion articles, books, and experts sharing advice about how to increase the likelihood of fulfilling your goals…and there’s a lot of good in what they say. But #1 on my list for the immediate and effective address to improve goal fulfillment is minimizing the peril that we create through bullsh**ing ourselves and others. Here’s the deal: as humans, we possess the extraordinary ability to rationalize. It’s an ability we exercise often. Just in the first few days of 2015, I have facilitated four client meetings in which I felt like I needed a hat to protect myself from all the falling bullsh**. This was not malicious or willful on anyone’s part, it’s just the all-too-common way in which we set goals. We need to work towards a more collaborative, constructively challenging approach to support each other’s success. It’s not complicated, but it can be difficult – or at least uncomfortable. But in the words of my former colleague, Randy Stott, co-author of The Portable MBA, pushing people to a level of “productive discomfort” is a laudable and achievable goal.
Here’s a quick picture of how business planning and preliminary goal-setting conversations can evolve from where most of us start to where we all need to move:
Context: Picture a company where referrals are a key driver of success. Each business development professional needs an action plan to enable their goal of generating enough opportunities to translate, ultimately, into sales. As a group, we talked through how these contacts are being kept fresh/refreshed and then shared some high-level approaches to stimulate everyone’s thinking about their respective action plans.
Starting Point: Ideas included to ‘shake the trees’ of a number of people we haven’t spoken to recently, to expect a current client to continue to use us in the same amount as they have in the past, and to count on an appropriate number of opportunities to present themselves to us.
Doing better: We can begin to help our colleagues or clients with a pretty simple, 3 Step process:
1. Ask them questions to help them identify what’s lacking in terms of concrete actions
2. Helping them develop an approach that incorporates those missing actions that are more likely to produce progress and results (or at least inform what they do next)
3. Be available to hold them accountable to doing what they say they’re going to do
Since an ounce of prevention is worth (at least) a pound of cure, my encouragement is that you focus on the following steps to avoid having to go backwards before you can go forwards; or as Billy Joel sang it: “Get it right the first time, yeah that’s the main thing…”:
• Know your terms—Vision: Where we’re trying to go; Strategy: How we plan to get there; Goals: How we measure our progress and achievement; Tactics: What we need to do to bring the Strategy to life and reach our Goals.
• Write it down—Whatever you plan to do, write it down and you’re instantly more likely to do it. There was a fascinating study conducted on the 1979 Harvard MBA program where graduate students were asked, “have you set clear, written goals for your future and made plans to accomplish them?” The result, only 3% had written goals and plans, 13% had goals but they weren’t in writing and 84% had no goals at all. Ten years later, the same group was interviewed again and the result was absolutely mind-blowing.
The 13% of the class who had goals, but did not write them down was earning twice the amount of the 84% who had no goals. The 3% who had written goals were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97% of the class combined! (Forbes, April 8, 2014)
Note to self: WRITE IT DOWN!!!!
• Enlist an accountability partner—Ask a colleague or friend, hire a coach…find someone who will commit to holding you accountable. You should determine the ground rules for what this means to you. It can be as simple as sharing what you’re going to do and having them check in with you beforehand to offer encouragement and afterwards to see how it went. Better yet, team up with someone who can, and will ask you good questions, test your thinking, share ideas, and who can be empathetic and, as needed, call you on your bullsh**.
My final bit of counsel and tough love on the process of significantly enhancing your ability to accomplish what you set out to is that knowing what you should do and doing it are two VERY different things. Accept that it’s hard and that most of us do better when we know someone is watching. Embrace that reality. Find someone not just to watch, but to invest in your success through a collaboration. One that is defined in such a way as to be mutually rewarding. Your opportunity to be different from most people is right there in front of you. Seize that opportunity through engaging with others and together shed the bullsh** and be great.
Jeff Lesher, Principal at entreQuest, blends his deep knowledge of organization design, human capital, and leadership with a pragmatic approach drawn from his own business experience and eQ’s philosophy to help eQ’s clients focus on their core purpose and move people effectively to action.