SUCCESS SECRETS: When Defeat Wins

It was one of those restaurant meals where the ambience so carefully crafted by gracious staff, handsome surroundings, and talented chef is undone by the people seated next to you. In this case, it was hollow-eyed salesman in the booth next to ours, who kept repeating one phrase, not continually but every five minutes or so. Like the tolling of bell, you heard his voice, slightly raw, break through the din: “Why do we keep changing our goals every time we don’t meet them? Why don’t we just declare defeat and set some goals we can meet.”
The meal had been blighted but, it was not totally wasted evening. The salesman had raised good question: Is it better to alter goals to reflect the likelihood of meeting them, or does good business planning require clear acknowledgement of success and failure?

Don’t move the goalposts
There are arguments to be made for flexibility. changed goal, when done early enough, does little harm to morale or momentum – if it doesn’t occur too frequently, of course.
And when you’re heading into unknown territory – volatile economy, new market, or merger – setting hard targets that are subsequently changed might help define the situation.
Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, they say; high tolerance for ambiguity and inconsistency has its place in business, particularly in times like these.
But consistently moving the goal- posts is bad business practice. As anybody who follows Wall Street knows, it’s dangerous to be defined by targets. Set goal too high, and The Street will punish you. Not always fairly, but that’s the way it is.
Similarly, the employee who agrees to highly unrealistic goal in order to avoid conflict with the boss is only postponing the crisis and, quite probably, making the situation worse. Why? Because the boss incorporates the estimate into an overall profit and loss projection. Once set in stone, such things take on weight of their own.
The first argument for letting the chips fall where they may: doing otherwise distorts reality.
Second argument for declaring failure is that the recognition of failed goal sends several messages to the nervous system of your company. None of these are pleasant, of course. The employee looks incompetent, the manager looks weak, and the supervising executive uninformed.
It’s painful situation, or at least it should be. Moving goals or targets to escape pain might feel like nice thing to do, but it is dangerous to all concerned. Why? To avoid failed goals, everyone in the chain of command must stay on his or her toes. If they have no inducement to remain so, decline is just matter of time. Even the consumer of your products has right to be concerned; if you’re too nice or squeamish about delivering the painful message, the product the consumer is relying on will become less of what it is known for – less beautiful, less strong, less delicious, less reliable.
When the bar is lowered, word gets out. Your word is devalued. Deadlines that aren’t met reverberate among suppliers and distributors. When they’re pressed by suppliers, distributors, employees, creditors, guess whose name they offer up and blame? Yours. By the time the gossip chain reaches the corner office, appearance will have replaced reality. The CEO is out of touch and, if you’re public, the stock is oversold. Soon the feedback reaching the employees causes them to doubt the management of their company. To complete the vicious circle, it makes them look even more suspiciously at future goals that are set for them.

When is persistence unreality?
Goal setters should remember that there is difference between persistence and unreality. successful business has, in its culture, the mental strength and character to explore and identify the difference, and to pass along the tradition of accurate estimation. Smart management sets smart goals. The opposite is destructive management.
It isn’t always easy to grasp this paradigm. The tendency to exhort the maximum in the language of fanaticism – never give up, fight to the bitter end – appeals to the romantic and heroic in us all.
It’s never easy to stand up and say: “We lost.” As children we are conditioned by movies and our peers to think that victory is the only acceptable outcome. But declaring defeat is one of the most powerful tools CEO can wield. It demands attention to admit failure, especially when it’s not blandly diffused around so that everybody takes his share, but lands squarely on the perpetrators and the process.
Declaring defeat is the ideal moment to remind people that unthinking acquiescence is no virtue. When something costs too much money and too much time, when the physical limitations are imposing too dire penalty, then it’s time to say, “I was wrong. Here’s where we went wrong. Now let’s fix it so we can get it right next time.”

Mark McCormack is the founder of International Management Group. www.successsecrets.com

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