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Stretch Goals Keep You Ahead of the Curve

Disruption is one of the great buzzwords of our accelerated digital era. 

It seems like everything is constantly being disrupted: how we work, shop, socialize, get medical care, buy our groceries–you get the picture. It’s that feeling of perpetual whitewater I’m always talking about (and that I named my business after!)

Disruption can get a bad rap. For some, it’s synonymous with instability. With risk. 

That’s not wrong. But it also misses the fact that in disruption’s destructive force lies its potential.

If you can learn to embrace disruption, to get comfortable proactively challenging your company’s status quo, that’s a position of incredible power. 

Think bigger–much bigger

Most companies have growth as a goal, but their margins are too modest. A typical quality improvement goal might be 10% each year. That kind of steady-she-goes growth might result in some incremental improvements. It might even be fine for an overall target. 

But every business has areas where 10% better is simply not good enough. 

As I wrote in a year-end post reflecting on Whitewater’s recent growth trajectory, it was only once we embraced the idea of exponential growth, of doubling year over year, that, well, we started to double. Before that, I’d been pretty content to keep on keeping on. We were comfortable, complacent, and frankly, vulnerable to our competition. That was the prod I needed to kick into high gear.

There’s a great business story from the 1980s about how Motorola responded to intense competition in the pager market (yes, I know I’m dating myself, but stick with me, the fundamentals are still relevant!).

Motorola was getting trampled by cheaper, better Japanese-made models. It turns out that quality controls were the problem. Motorola’s defect targets were 20% (20 per 100 units). 

Compare that with the competition’s standard of three defects per million

Not even in the same universe, right? 

Defects are expensive, and they were killing Motorola. 

Wisely, its leaders realized that at 10% better a year, they had zero chance of competing. 

They had to set a stretch goal: to get 10 times better every two years. It was a big lift. They had to transform all of their systems, structures and processes. And, as I discuss later in this piece, their people also needed to be brought along. (Unfortunately for Motorola and pager manufacturers everywhere, that line of business got wiped out before they could fully catch up, but the underlying story is still valid.)

Motorola’s pager story shows that there are times when you have to do better by orders of magnitude, to make quantum leaps, not just incremental gains. Ask yourself: where does your company need to be ten times better than you are today–not just 10%?  

Disrupt your brain

Once you decide you've got to be ten times not 10% better, another realization will quickly arrive: your current thinking will never get you there.

Disruption starts from within. And it takes a leader who’s willing to self-reflect, to hold their thinking and the group-think of their organization up for examination, to compel others to come along on this journey. 

So challenge yourself by actively examining your underlying thinking – the mental models, beliefs, assumptions and perceptions that shape your actions and, ultimately, your outcomes. 

(Check out this post for ideas on how to examine your thinking and understand how it influences your actions and outcomes). 

And get ready to get comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing. 

Make disruption your culture. 

When leaders talk about disruption as a positive force, it sets the tone for the whole organization. It helps create a culture where innovation, change, experimentation, and adaptation are the norm. It nurtures the kind of risk-taking and out-of-the-box thinking that’s needed to reach stretch goals. 

Returning to the Motorola pager example, what they did from a people perspective is fascinating. One of their realizations was if they wanted to get dramatically better at quality, they had to instill total quality management principles across the entire organization. 

It was a big shift–and it worked. I think that’s partly because when your team feels part of something bigger than themselves, something bold and new, and when they have permission to try–and fail–it nurtures a new boldness. 

I think back on a project I’d worked on in the early 2000s at a failing golf resort that was burning cash and barreling towards bankruptcy 

I’d been brought in as a consultant to turn things around. We needed to set some big goals and work fast before the money ran out. Every day, we had to make decisions with less-than-ideal information. There was no time to wait.

The team was resistant. “We're moving too fast,” they’d say. 

But if we slowed down, we would have died. 

And you know what? We made it.  

Most of us are comfortable with the pace at which we've grown accustomed to working. But your competition may be moving at a very different speed–and if you don't move faster, you’ll be left eating their dust. My takeaway from the resort turnaround project is that we often don't know how fast fast is. 

No one thought breaking the four-minute mile was a human possibility until Roger Bannister did it. Once he cracked it, his record was beaten in just 46 days.

Disruption is a mindset as much as a set of actions or a strategy. 

It is heady, scary and, well, fun!

Don’t forget to enjoy that rush of exhilaration. It’s contagious. And it will help fuel you in those challenging moments when your confidence in your ability to hit your stretch goal is ebbing. 

By imagining the impossible, it just might become achievable. And even if you don’t quite get there, you’ll still run faster and further than you likely ever imagined you could. 

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