As the end of the year approaches, it’s a natural time to look back over the past year’s work. Did you make progress? Was the year a success? The source of our motivation has a big impact on how we perceive the year’s work. Did I achieve a financial milestone? Will I get the leadership position I want? Did we reach our sales goals? These are external motivations. Internal motivations may also drive us – such as a need to learn, achieve, better yourself, make fewer mistakes, etc. Neither driving force is the wrong one. Personally, I think a mix of the two serves us well. As we walk the trail through our careers and personal lives, the source and makeup of what motivates us often changes. About 10 years ago, a mentor‘s comment completely changed how I relate to the things I achieve.
The gap on the way to ideal
When we look at our goals or ToDo list, 100% “perfect” completion of every single one on time and on budget is the ideal “destination”. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s rarely realistic. It’s also rarely necessary – at least on the first completion.
“First completion“? Yes, exactly. Few of us knock off a project and find that it’s perfect and never needs another polish, tweak, or modification. Even if the only customer is you, it’s better to complete the job, gather feedback and make another pass to improve your work.
The trouble with 100% completion is we rarely, if ever, achieve it. If 100% completion of your goals is consistently achieved on time and on budget, it often means the goals were watered down. We might extend a timeline, ignore some portion of the budget or loosen quality standards. Doesn’t matter which one.
Looking back at the Apollo project, NASA was charged with getting men safely to the moon and back by the end of the decade. I remember watching the first steps broadcast on a grainy black and white TV at my grandparents’ farm. That was a late night for a young kid in 1969. Yet Apollo wasn’t 100%. An Apollo I launch rehearsal cost the lives of three astronauts. Apollo 13 almost did the same while traveling between Earth and the Moon. NASA achieved the audacious goal Kennedy laid before them, despite not achieving perfect execution.
The gap between perfect execution and your actual execution is quite often significant. Having the right perspective is critical.
Perspective and the gap
When we look at the ideal outcome, we’re almost certain to come away disappointed. We expect perfection. You won’t be happy or satisfied with your efforts when you assess where you are against where you expected to be when everything went perfectly. That space will be filled with regrets about incomplete tasks, tasks that weren’t started, things that didn’t go as planned, etc.
The comment from my mentor paraphrases like this: If you look forward to the difference between what you did and the ideal outcome, there will always be a gap. That gap will always bother you – and it destroys the ambition in some. However, if you look back from where you are to where you started, you’ll find great satisfaction and motivation to charge forward when seeing how far you’ve progressed.
This change in perspective completely changed how I felt about the incomplete / untouched items taunting me from their comfortable home on my Trello board. Strive for 100%. Celebrate your progress, however imperfect. Use your progress as motivation. Keep improving.
When a team’s original goal appears to be within reach, managers often trot out “stretch goals”. Is this done to create a failure that can be held over a team? Stretch goals usually create morale failure from significant progress. Motivation is rarely the outcome. Managers should focus on the 90% your team achieved, rather than the 10% that didn’t get done. It seems natural to do this when you’re a software guy – since we often focus on what’s broken. As a leader, it seems like a great way to repeatedly chip away at the morale of your team by never letting them celebrate or acknowledge accomplishments. The time to focus on the 10% will come soon enough.