Aside from trust, what is the most important ingredient for a team that wants to go from good to great?

Simply put: The right stretch goal.

Of course it is more than this. You need to have a strong leader and smart, capable and committed colleagues.  You also need to have transparent and effective communication, a high level of mutual respect and camaraderie, and the ability to engage in constructive conflict in a way that leaves the team and the business better for the effort.

Yet, if you want to see a team reach its ultimate heights, then the level of commitment of each person to each other needs to be exceptional, and usually the best way to accomplish this is to have everyone committed to and accountable for extraordinary outcomes.

Win The Cup!

While sports analogies are sometimes imperfect for analyzing organizational life, they are illustrative in useful ways. Every Spring, any team that is in the NHL playoffs is thinking one of two things: win the next game, and, more to the point, win the Stanley Cup. There is absolutely no confusion about what this means: winning four, best-of-seven series.

The same is true in the NBA. Think of the long and sometimes lazy NBA season that morphs into the war of the playoffs in which we see individuals and then the team take their performance to another level.

It’s rare that the last team standing isn’t the one in which the players are the most committed to each other compared to the other teams in the field: think of the imagery of an NHL defensemen repeatedly laying out his head and body to block a 100 mph slap shot for his goalie.

The same can be true in business, where the barriers that exist between colleagues necessarily have to fall in order for the team to achieve an extraordinary goal or vision.  In these cases, the responsibility to each other becomes as important, if not more important, than individual priorities, and team members act as collective owners of the business. Having a group of individually great players may result in a good team achieving great things, but having a challenging, motivating goal will  take the team to a new level of performance.

High Performing Teams

In our experience with High Performance Teams, the two factors that matter most for teams that seek to go from good to great are a shared commitment to the vision and extraordinary goals and shared accountability for results. Having the right stretch goal is important for both of these. Take for example a basketball team who’s goal is winning the NBA championship. This goal is specific, highly challenging but possible, and easily measured. And, for those who aspire to be the best in the world at what they do, highly motivating.  These factors help everyone involved understand what they need to commit to and for what they are accountable.  For example, what happens when an NBA player doesn’t dive for a loose ball during the Finals? They find the bench.

But this is where the sports analogy is close to running its course. The right stretch goal for a team in the NHL finals is obvious: Win the Cup. What about teams in business?

The Tricky Business of Stretch Goals

Often, when we are asked to work with teams, it is because the team leader realizes that there is a big challenge or opportunity that the team needs to confront. Perhaps they need to do something collectively that none of them has ever individually done before — double the size of the business, deal with a rapidly changing marketplace that threatens their business model, or maneuver to become the number one player in their space.  The realization is that the individuals need to come together at another level of cohesiveness or performance so that, as the cliché goes, the whole is more than the sum of the parts in pursuit of a compelling common purpose.

Yet, when we ask teams to identify their own version of Win The Cup, they often struggle.  Why? It can be hard to get specific. Team members may struggle to think big, and they can be dealing with a legacy of focusing on the here and now rather than the long term (this is an exceedingly common complaint among those with whom we speak). Some would rather not concern themselves with a big honking deliverable for which they are all on the hook.

However, the pursuit of identifying a shared stretch vision or goal is worth it!  It reminds everyone of why they need to work together and commit to a common mission.  We often hear this when we ask teams to reflect on examples in which they demonstrated great collaboration and teamwork: the stories typically relate to overcoming shared adversity (such as the challenges of getting through the Great Recession), or when it is readily apparent that the stakes have been raised and that everyone will rise or fall together.

What Is The Right Stretch Goal?

As suggested above, it seems every major sport has trophies which symbolize excellence. Last month I was startled to find a red carpet event that served as prelude for the James Beard Foundation Awards as I exited my office in Chicago. Think, too, of Michelin Stars or Nobel prizes.  There is no shortage of stretch goals for a wide range of enterprises.

Established businesses sometimes strive for awards (e.g., JD Power), but what about those businesses for which there are no external symbols of excellence?  Some organizations resort to dollars (double the size of the business!; hit $100 million, hit $5 billion); this can be effective but often loses its capacity to motivate over time. And, we often hear that monetary goals can distract a company from what it is trying to accomplish.

Being the very best can be compelling. In the ’80s, GE decided to be #1 or #2 in any market it served or to get out of that business. I can think of another Fortune 500 company that seeks to be “twice as good as anyone else in the industry” based on a range of financial, product and service metrics. Shooting to be Number One seems to work especially well in high profile situations like the ranking of MBA programs.

Another example prominent in the public mind is Amazon.  In their case, the stretch goal is a state of mind. Here is how Scott Rosenberg put it in his review of top stories in April:

Amazon’s 20-year story of innovation and customer-oriented growth has had its ups (like a focus on long-term planning over short-term results that has paid off for investors) and downs (like reports of a brutal culture that chews employees up). Jeff Bezos offers a fascinating glimpse of the thinking and mindset behind the company’s ascent in his annual letter to shareholders, which Recode reprinted last week.

Bezos’s mantra: Hold onto “day 1” as long as possible. Fight the idea that “day 2” has arrived. “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

This is a stretch goal that represents aspiration itself. They are in competition with themselves and the goal is to never surrender the Day One mindset.

Speaking of state of mind, some organizations look to make the world a better place. IKEA seeks to “improve the lives of many”.  Patagonia’s mission is to “Build the best products, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environment crisis”.  Adidas is supporting ocean conservation efforts and are now making “high performance sportswear” from plastic trash farmed from the oceans.

The above examples suggest the importance of having an authentic corporate identity that provides a rationale for a business’ direction, and they give any senior management team guidance for setting big, meaningful goals that can bring everyone together in a more cohesive, high performing manner.

There are also some tendencies it’s best to avoid when setting stretch objectives. It’s never a good idea to attempt to boil the ocean.

Where does your team stand?

Here are a few questions we often ask when working with teams that strive to take it to the next level:

  • Is this a high performing team? Why or why not?
    • We find that people will often initially say “yes”, and then when they provide the why, will downgrade to “not yet” or “I guess that means we are not high performing”.
  • What is the collective mission for this team?
    • It is always interesting to compare verbatim responses to identify similarities and differences across team members.
  • What one thing, if improved, would most drive the business?
  • What one thing, if improved, would most improve how this team works together?
  • What should the company become the very best at? What would be the value of this?
  • How can the company change the industry or change the way our customers think about our industry?

Carpe Diem!