Justin Hughes writes on issues relating to team and organisational performance. A former Red Arrows pilot, he is now Managing Director of Mission Excellence, a consultancy focused on improving clients’ execution – their ability to close the gap between what gets talked about and planned, and what gets done. Justin previously spent 12 years as an RAF fighter pilot and is a renowned speaker on performance and risk and has presented alongside Richard Branson and Kofi Annan.

At the very first speaking engagement I ever did, an individual specialising in employee motivation had also been asked to speak. The company made about 50,000 units a year – the exact measure is unimportant; it could have been spanners, cans of baked beans or anything. The speaker posed the question as to how people would feel if next year’s target was 100,000 units.

The reaction was predictable: daunted.  He then posed an interesting follow-on: if a new manager came in and was told that the target was 100,000 what would she do?  Without the baggage of a lower expectation, she would be far more likely to think ‘why not?’. 

Without the baggage of a lower expectation, you are more likely to think ‘why not?’. 

There are lots of other examples of that sort of mindset shift.  Some years ago during an early version of what many would call a mid-life crisis, I ran the New York Marathon. A 3-mile training run during the week would often completely finish me off.  However if I did a 10-mile run at the weekend, the first 3 miles would be straightforward; having a bigger goal in my head made the smaller goal seem easy.

Self-evident?  Statement of the blindingly obvious?  Where are we going here?  Personal motivation 101?  For a more interesting example, it is useful to take a look at the 6 Nations Rugby results from last weekend.  This is an annual competition in which 6 teams all play each other and this year’s fixtures and results threw up an interesting combination for the last round of games to be played in the order below:

  1. Italy v Wales
  2. Scotland v Ireland
  3. England v France

Going into the final round, England, Wales and Ireland all had the same points and if all three won again, the competition would be decided on difference of points scored in the games (aka ‘goal difference’ for non-rugby fans).  At the start of the last round the ‘goal differences’ were:

England +37
Ireland +33
Wales +12

Italy and Scotland have in recent years been the weaker teams but both are credible on the international stage. Wales had a demanding task against Italy. They went into their final game needing to win by 25 just to match England; to stand a chance of winning the competition, they needed as big a buffer as possible. They won 61-20, giving them a ‘goal difference’ of 53.

Ireland played next and now needed to win a by a clear 20 (plus buffer!), an equally demanding ‘stretch target’. They won 40-10 (i.e. by 30).  Ireland had finished ahead of Wales. 

England now needed to win by 26 against France, the hardest demand of the 3 teams who might win overall.  You would have got good odds against England scoring 26 points, and great odds against winning by 26.  They won 55-35 (i.e. by 20, not enough by 6).  Before the match, scoring 55 points would have been seen as a seemingly impossible target.

Still with me? Clear as mud? What is interesting is to directly compare the performances in the last round with recent and historical performance:

The performances in the final round were all exceptional. When the teams needed big wins, all three were suddenly able to produce them. Coincidence? Unlikely. A function of incentives? Implicitly a factor. Or a change of mindset as a direct result of a change in the goal setting?

If you aim for great, you will be good. 

I am reminded of the debriefs from my previous career as a Red Arrows pilot. The internal standard was way higher than any external measure. It was to fly the perfect show, and because that was the explicit aim and what performance was measured against, the show generally got good enough to look perfect from the ground.

If you aim for great, you will be good. If you aim for good you will be average. And if you aim for average you will be poor. If you believe that perfect is the only acceptable standard, and you actually go for it, you’ll be surprised how close you can get…