This is the fifth in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 4) Demonstrate distrust.
To dream the impossible dream (cue music) is to set lofty goals with absolutely no chance of attaining them. It’s great to set such goals but they must be balanced with reality. Unfortunately teams do sometimes fail because they are living in a fantasy world. One interesting aspect of this is the concept of positive-thinking and books such as Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich that point out the problems of living in a sunny world where it never rains. Maintaining a positive disposition has clear benefits but this alone won’t ensure your success. If you really, really, really believe you can fly and you jump out of a window on the tenth floor and flap your arms…well good luck to you! As I wrote in the recently published article, Diversity Breeds Success, one way to have a balanced view is to ensure a distribution of perspectives across a team. Some folks may dream big while others may be devilish advocates. Their collective viewpoints may be balanced enough to allow the team to both aim high and hit that mark.
Even as an individual you can try to temper a wild fantasy with a dose of reality by self-critiquing but there is always the issue of cognitive biases. For example, confirmation bias which is the tendency to look towards information that confirms our preconceptions. The opposite of this is disconfirmation bias in which we avoid or discount information that contradicts our perspective. That’s why it is usually best to have someone else provide the opposing view.
There is one school of thought that says we should repeatedly reach for the sky and if we fail then try and try again. I touched on this in a previous post about the importance of screwing up. The problem is that there usually a cost for such misses and it needs to be taken into account. One of the benefits of failing should be that we don’t just fail but learn. In other words we might start out dreaming impossible dreams but in time as we learn to apply pragmatism while improving various skills and gaining experience, our aim should get better and we should miss less and hit our targets more often.
A good practice in dog training is to always end a training session on a positive note with something the dog can do and get praised for as opposed to something that they will likely fail at. When leaders repeatedly dream impossible dreams, leading teams repeatedly down the road to failure, people can become disillusioned, frustrated and tired. They may even begin to believe that they are not capable of achieving anything, saying “What’s the point of trying? We clearly suck!” Even if they believe in their own capabilities, they might say “We’re jinxed.” When goals are actually attainable people build confidence. Sometimes leaders need to exit their fantasy world especially when people in the trenches are telling them that a plan simply can’t be achieved. This is why the best strategies are those that are created collaboratively with input from everyone and not just senior management.
Think big but attainable by dreaming nearly-impossible dreams.