As the US entered WWII, FDR proposed a production goal of 50,000 planes the first year. Business leaders at the time thought this impossible. In 1940 the US produced just over 3,000 aircraft. By 1942, the first full year the US was involved in the war, production was just shy of 50,000 aircraft. By 1943 the United States was producing airplanes at nearly twice the goal, including over a thousand of the enormous and advanced B-29 Superfortress bombers. Broad goals can have a motivational effect even when they seem impossible to attain. Drastic goals provide a constraint of sorts. The constraint is that the old assumptions must be thrown out – it requires new thinking.

The useful constraint of a drastic goal, forcing one to approach the problem from a new angle, can also have the opposite effect, narrowing thought and oppressing initiative out of fear. What makes a broad goal useful to open up options versus One that closes them down? 

We encounter goals all the time. Without goals, it can be difficult for teams or individuals to judge progress and make tradeoff decisions along the way. Goals, however, can be used as a placeholder for real engagement in the process, a way to avoid more profound conversions. In some ways, this seems natural. Rory Sutherland said that the higher up in the hierarchy one is, the more they want to aggregate data. The best way to aggregate something is to convert it into a number. We lose the essence of a thing when we turn it into a number. We see this time and time again in organizations that have goals that become do or die affairs without leadership involved in the production of the work. Something complex, strange, and beautiful has been converted into a number. This makes it all too easy to demand continuous increases without understanding the underlying constraints.  

Many managers are also taught, mistakenly, to believe that if they don’t push for what are euphemistically called stretch goals, that they will have somehow left something on the table. The team could have performed better if they had only pushed. This can be particularly damaging for groups. It’s impossible to accurately measure what precisely an organization can achieve but not pushing them into failure. To understand what a team is capable of requires engagement in a very deep way. It’s a bit like driving a car. You cannot understand the limits of the vehicle and your own driving capability via remote control. You must sit in the car and feel the machine.   

FDR may have had a dramatic production goal, but he also used his political power to put in place the systems that would enable that goal. Although, as President, he was not involved in every team and every decision, that would have been impossible, he was engaged directly in ways he could be, using his influence to help the organizations achieve the goal and much more. It’s also important to keep in mind that dramatic goals such as war production are tied to actual needs. The nation needed to produce equipment for the fight; it wasn’t just some made-up goal; there was a real need behind it. The goal was dramatic because the challenge was dramatic. Even though WWII seems to us in hindsight, an obvious problem, not requiring communication on the need for drastic goals, and yet FDR spends a great deal of time communicating with the American people on the need to support the effort. His famous fireside chats informed the public in a way no past President had. He also addressed controversies directly. 

It is whispered by some that only by abandoning our freedom, our ideals, our way of life, can we build our defenses adequately, can we match the strength of the aggressors. I do not share these fears.

If leaders do throw out big goals without the involvement necessary along the way, it can cause all kinds of nasty surprises to grow beneath the surface. We have many examples of well-respected companies doing things that seem far outside the bounds of an ethical organization. The reasons for these issues are complicated, but I believe many have a root in goals pushed without the necessary grounding and leadership.

Wells Fargo, for example, had broad goals around the number of products per customer. The result was fraudulent behavior by thousands of employees to meet goals that were unachievable. I’ve seen first hand how goals like products per customer, which by corporate necessity must increase year over year, can introduce uncomfortable issues within even the best culture — pushing products that may be less than valuable because they further tie the customer to the organization – without asking along the way if the product is actually valuable2. It’s the beginning of a decline.

Broad goals, thoughtfully applied, can be a rallying cry. Goals tied to some understandable challenge that everyone can rally around can be motivating. As with most things, it’s not the actual thing but the intent and behavior behind it. If your intent as a leader is to rally the team to challenge themselves to accomplish something they may not believe they can accomplish and not to beat them over the head with some random goal – then it can have a motivating effect.

People have to trust that you indeed have their interest at heart and only want them to perform their best – don’t use goals as a weapon. This is especially true for goals that are not the real output. If we take the Wells Fargo example, product per customer is not the real goal; the real goal is either increased customer engagement or satisfaction or something like share to customer wallet or customer stickiness. Interestingly enough, a customer only cares about the first ones. No customer cares about share or wallet or stickiness (the latter being counter to customer needs in any event).

With these problems, why does management insist on putting goals out there in this manner? Some of this is no doubt due to survivorship bias. Sometimes goals are met. It’s easy to then attribute the achievement to the imposition of the goal itself. When goals fail, it can be easily applied to the lack of the team’s work. It’s a convenient and all too common excuse.  

Aside from goals being often arbitrary is the very real problem of achieving them. What happens then? Once a goal is achieved, the next logical thing is to set a new goal, again most likely arbitrary. You’ve put the team on a treadmill; they can never get off.  In the case of WWII, the achievement of the goal and victory in war was the real goal, production numbers were one means to achieve that. The goal wasn’t arbitrary in the sense that although the specific numerical goal may have been fairly arbitrary, the idea was that a massive increase over standard production was necessary. Of that everyone could agree.

When creating goals for your teams I think it’s helpful to keep three things in mind.

  1. Make sure the goals are not arbitrary but rather connected to some identifiable need that is important to the organization. Most organizational performance goals are arbitrary.
  2. Even if you are high in the hierarchy, engage in the progress of the goal by understanding what the teams need and how you can help facilitate or motivate action. Never separate yourself from the attainment of the goal.
  3. Focus on building a system that supports continuous improvement and reflection on performance by all levels.  Truly great organizations are like a perpetual motion machine that spits out improvement and adaptation without arbitrary goals. Make that your ultimate aim – a system that is self-managing then lead that system.