Be Better Than You Ever Thought You Could Be

Don Dodge, a Developer Advocate at Google (and before Google, a startup evangelist at Microsoft), wrote a fascinating post a few days ago about ways that Google measures success. In his post, Don talked about Google’s impossible goals:

Google sets impossible bodacious goals…and then achieves them. The engineering mindset of solving the impossible problem is part of the culture instilled in every group at Google… Most big companies set annual goals like improving or growing something by x%, and then measure performance once a year. At Google a year is like a decade. Annual goals aren’t good enough. Set quarterly goals, set them at impossible levels, and then figure out how to achieve them. Measure progress every quarter and reward outstanding achievement.

Don submitted his quarterly goals, focusing on aggressive but achievable goals. His manager said they weren’t good enough because “you can’t achieve amazing results by setting modest targets. We want amazing results. We want to tackle the impossible.”

I’ve been thinking about Don’s post for the past few days. I’ve always set impossible goals for myself – that’s one way I’ve been able to focus and grow – both intellectually and professionally. But while I’m comfortable setting impossible goals for myself, I’m wondering whether many companies could follow Google’s lead and ask their employees to set impossible goals.

Many employees would be uncomfortable with goals that appear unreachable. Based on many conversations with my employees, I understand that discomfort.The discomfort is not unreasonable – and it’s very rational.

If I had the choice, I would choose Google’s approach. I’d rather work with people who set impossible goals and achieve 65% of the impossible. Don Dodge is spot on – 65% of the impossible is, at least for me, better than 100% of the ordinary.

Yet most startups could not effectively emulate Google in setting impossible goals. Google brings many tangible and intangible factors to the table that allow Google to be different. Among many other factors, Google has huge cash reserves – it can weather failure. Google also pays huge rewards for success – so there’s a big reward for those who reach the impossible. Most startups simply aren’t built like that – they have limited funds and limited means to reward success.

But the fact that most startups are not able to emulate Google’s impossible goals culture shouldn’t push startups to focus only on achievable goals. Startups that don’t push their teams to excel are doomed to fail and are often overtaken by more nimble and aggressive competitors.

Rather than ask employees to be better than everybody else and to achieve impossible goals, smart startups could ask each employee to be better than the employee ever thought they could be. After all, the impossible is what nobody could do before someone does it.

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