In this post, I want to define what constitutes very very aggressive goals, run though their upsides and downsides for both managers and employees, and finally discuss the practical implications for consultants who deal with organizations which have very very aggressive goals.
For the sake of this post, a very very aggressive goal is a goal which requires very hard work (often but not always) over a protracted period of time within a rigid and non-negotiable set of stringent budget, performance and quality requirements. Very very aggressive goals are often not achievable without some “slippage” or retreat , especially schedule, budget or “scope retreat”.
Why do organizations set very very aggressive goals?
1) To promise a key client something that they are demanding. Example: upgrade your last release or we will uninstall your software from our system.
2) To help build the career of a key decision maker. Example: Colonel Yair wants to use his unit to take out the enemy, because he is up for promotion in a few months.
3) In order to survive. Example: Ghetto Warsaw uprising. Or competitor emerges with prices that will destroy your market share. Or life saving medicine in a pandemic.
4) To gain huge strategic advantage in a very short time. Example: an application in the area of cyber security in a state under constant immediate threat.
Now let’s look at very very aggressive goals’ impact of various populations:
Newer employees and fresh meat can be very motivated by very very aggressive goals because of the platform it provides to shine quickly and get ahead without the tedious process of seniority slowly down the runway to promotion.
Veteran employees, who have seen this all before, take out their protective armor which includes making the “right” promises, “apparently agreeing”, prepare excuses and think who can be blamed when the shit hits the fan. “I did my piece but the specs we got were not accurate”, or “the client doesn’t know his ass from his elbow”.
I cannot overstate the protective armor that staff develops against very very aggressive goals. Example, “I won’t start working hard yet, because when the pressure really comes, I will already have ruined my family life”.
As Bangalore based OD guru Dr Joseph George points out in his comments below, “sustainable achievements require a psychologically safe work environment in which one can attend to challenges as they occur, and deal with the stress of taking on initiatives that look promising, before they are completed”. The veteran recognizes the threat; the newcomers sees only the opportunity.
Middle managers are in a real quandary. To maintain the trust with their employees, they need to listen to and factor in all the constraints and problems that surface to them, which often force them to ask the men in charge for more time and resources. The middle manager is often very aware that some goals are undoable, but cannot say so freely.
The senior managers at first often whip their horses more often than they plan to. Then, they pooh pooh away constraints, they show disdain for defeatism, they eventually start to hear only what they want to. They show little fear when they see cracks in the wall, but rather anger at the “incompetence of the troops”. Finally, senior managers craft stories about why the goals were not achieved: “circumstance changed”; the market changed-and/or they chop off a head or two and or pull off a reorg which buys time from the board or key stakeholders. In other words, they provide a context that paints the failure as a non-failure, pushing forward doomsday to a later date.
3) OD consultants
I have been falsely accused of explaining how not to do OD, and not focusing on what needs to done. Anyone who reads this blog knows what this is not true. I have written many posts on how to deal with over-commitments and I will provide a few links. Like this. And this.
Now, some practical tips on how to consult with companies whose goals are very very aggressive:
The key to understand how to do successful consulting in such a situation is to understand how the organization will eventually de commit. (Goffman calls this process “cooling the mark”.)
The first step and the most critical is bridging between what the managers say and what the employees know.
De-commitment from the initial commitment may look like this:-
- Wow wow wow-we can do it.
- We are doing our best.
- There are some difficulties but we are confident
- There are some features we want to improve and this will take time,
- We will do “phased delivery”,
- We have a crisis!
My experience is that the OD consultant needs to initially try two or three tricks that are known a priori will not be fully effective, yet will allow the gradual breaking of very bad news to the CEO. Interventions may include “coaching” for the head of R&D or one of his teams, various team building sessions or whatever. Within a month of two of OD being commissioned, “things are in process and while there is some improvement”, this change is not fast enough; then the management team can stop perfuming the pig both internally and with the client and come clean.
My experience also has taught me never to lose the trust of the programmers/first line employees. I once consulted on a project which management thought was “almost all done” while proof of design was severely flawed. I resisted all attempts to consult people to “manage their priorities better-aka work even harder”. The moment that a Dilbert feels that a consultant is there to apply pressure, the Dilbert starts lying to you as well.
My experience has also taught me in situations of severe over commitment, people who “step up to the plate” and try to “make the impossible happen” may be very opportunistic and looking for a short term PR win. There are no fast fixes when the gap between the commitment and reality are too large. The OD consultant must be wary of factoring in commitment from these heroes-in-waiting.
Finally, 5 things you may not know about very very aggressive commitments.
1 Culture counts. Risk tolerant cultures accept very very aggressive commitments because they are more tolerant about failure.
2 Very very aggressive commitments can be achieved especially when the winds of luck blow in the right direction.
3 Truth and facts die in an organization whose OS (operating system) is based on constant very very aggressive goals. No one ends up knowing what is doable.
4 There are some very successful organizations which over commit and under deliver. In the real world of course, not in OD text books.
5 Very very aggressive commitments do breed positive by products in the short term– such as short cuts, risk taking and in-house innovation.