January 12 – “They can because they think they can.” (Virgil)

January 12 – “They can because they think they can.” (Virgil)

One of the most defeating forces of nature is the belief that something is impossible. Once a person believes that something cannot be done, then any hope of it being done is lost. Once I embrace the notion that something is impossible, I give up hope and stop trying.

As the new year gets rolling, many of us are setting our goals for the year. I set some for my personal life and posted them on this blog last week. My wife and I also developed a list of projects for the house that we are keeping handy. Over the course of this month I, and my team, will be setting our work objectives for the year. These will become the basis of our annual review process next November and December.

When setting my goals there has to be a tension between setting myself up for failure and limiting myself with low expectations. For work, the objectives we enter into the system typically follow the SMART formula: they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. I used italics for Attainable because that is a topic of frequent conversation at work. If I set my personal bar too high, then the objective is not reachable and I set myself up for failure. If I set the bar too low, then the significance of accomplishment is reduced. The key is to have my overall set of objectives be challenging enough to stretch me, but not so challenging that they break me.

This is where the quote from Virgil becomes important. I have sat through dozens of objective setting sessions with my own management and those who work for me over the years. One year in particular comes to mind. It was the late 1990s and I was working in a group that did Process Improvement workshops. We would meet with teams and set up the workshops. There was a planning element, and then a team had to be assembled. We would then all convene in a conference room for a day or two (sometimes more), and would work through some process that needed improvement. At the end of the workshop the team had a set of tangible action plans to execute which would make their jobs better in some way.

As I was setting my objectives, one of the measurements was how many workshops I would deliver in the year. I don’t remember the precise numbers, but I do remember that in the previous year I had delivered about 20 workshops in 6 months. For the new year I had doubled that amount to 40. When I sat with my manager he went to that number and asked why it was 40. I told him that I thought that would work out to about twice what I’d done in the previous year. He asked why I didn’t set the bar higher, to 50, 60 or 70 workshops? I told him I didn’t think that 70 was realistic, and that even 50 or 60 would be a stretch. After some discussion I set the bar at about 55 workshops. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to reach that number, but off I went. I knew there was an opportunity at mid-year to adjust.

As it turns out I exceeded the number in my objectives. Again, I don’t remember with precision, but I want to say that I was closer to about 60, or 10% over my objective. Looking back I wonder what would have happened if I’d set the bar to 70. Would I have met or even exceeded that amount? Or did I limit myself?

This week I will be working on my objectives for the year, and I plan to keep the lesson from those workshops in mind. I plan to set my personal bar high and demand from myself that I excel. And I will keep a slightly different version of the the words of Virgil in mind as I go through this year. I will because I believe I will!

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