Goal setting for momentum

Why letting go of outcomes is the fastest path to consistent success

Last week’s edition of Second Mountain Startup seems to have struck a chord, particularly the analysis of the Be => Do => Have framework. We literally doubled our subscribers overnight and added hundreds of new followers on Twitter. People said things like this:

I was a bit blown away at first, honestly. But upon reflection, find myself more committed than ever to making SMS a lighthouse for changemakers in the world.

Thank you to everyone who read and shared last week’s post. You made a difference for me, and as you can see, for others.

Now let’s dive in.

1. Build momentum by focusing on actions, not results

(Image via @JackButcher @VisualizeValue)

Just like in sports, momentum is gold when it comes to building companies. And no momentum is more important than the momentum that comes from the founder feeling like they’re winning.

But traditional goal-setting processes like SMART goals, while useful in most contexts, can actually be demotivating to founders due to the uncertainty inherent in building new businesses. Traditional goals, used incorrectly, can actively sabotage the very thing they’re designed to create: momentum.

Here’s a typical case:

You set your long term goal. Say it’s to reach 1m users. You chunk that goal down into milestones, say your first one is to hit 500 users in 30 days. Then you develop an action plan to hit those goals, say some SEO, paid Facebook ads and landing pages, and you lock in. So far so good.

You bust your ass, work nights, weekends, get the landing page/SEO/Facebook done, plus some. You sacrifice everything you can to hit that goal, but you miss. Turns out your software went down. Or Facebook changed a term that made your ad illegal. Or maybe your goal was simply too ambitious.

Either way, shit happened and despite all your work you missed the goal, and now in addition to the inherent difficulty of the job, now you’re also wondering if you even have what it takes. You missed your first milestone. Successful founders don’t miss their milestones, right?

With that doubt in your mind, you set a new goal, and cross your fingers.

I’ve seen so many people get caught in this mental trap — attaching their sense of self worth to their ability to produce outcomes. Our society tells us this is how it works.

It doesn’t have to work like this. Starting a company is hard enough without setting yourself up to feel like you suck at your job if (when) something out of your control happens.

The most effective founders attach their sense of accomplishment to completing actions, never to producing a result. This ensures that they can build momentum (read: the lifeblood of any new company) consistently through their own actions, regardless of outside forces.

Here’s what that looks like:

You set your long term goal. Say it’s to reach 1m users. You chunk it down to milestones and develop an action plan to hit the first one same as above. You lock in.

You bust your ass, checking items off your to-do list. You work hard, and you finish your landing page/SEO/Facebook combo. Because you completed those things, you celebrate your competence as a founder. You actually, maybe, relax.

Then your software goes down, or Facebook shuts you down, or something else changes, and you miss your goal. Shit.

But you’re winning. You’re used to winning. You’re batting 1,000 on completing your action plans. So you iterate your short term goal and create a new plan, your best bet at which actions will help you get there, taking into account any new information. You don’t know if those actions will produce the result either, but you have no doubt you’ll get them done.

You always do. You got this.

You can imagine which way produces better results.

The best startup goal setting I’ve been around followed this process:

  1. Set goal

  2. Chunk to progressive milestones

  3. Set action plan to reach first milestone

  4. Complete action plan (this is where you either succeed or fail)

  5. Analyze, dispassionately, whether actions taken produced expected results

  6. Accounting for that analysis, iterate action plan to reach revised milestone

  7. Repeat

Your job as a founder, the standard to which you should hold yourself, is completing the actions, not producing the result.

So by all means, set goals. Big hairy ass ones. But don’t think that you have control over anything more than your actions taken in their service. Be ruthless about doing what you said you would do, and leave outcomes to the Universe to decide.

2. With all your “crushing it” you’re making it psychologically unsafe for your team

Jerry Colonna, executive coach and author of the amazing business book Reboot, did an interview this week in which he shared this gem:

“So when I stand up as a CEO of a startup and I say we're crushing it, everything is great, what I'm doing is I’m making it actually psychologically unsafe for the people that work with me to take the necessary risks to innovate because they all know they're not crushing it. No-one’s crushing it. No-one is getting it right every single moment of every single day. Life is a roller coaster. We emotionally ride up and down, up and down, up and down. And when we pretend otherwise we make it really really difficult for someone who's struggling with their roller coaster. Because then the story they tell themselves is that ‘I feel bad so I must be broken.’ And here's a truth: you're not broken, you're just human and that's the glory and the mess of being human.”

I experienced this first hand. For nearly 10 years I was always Crushing It to everyone I came into contact with, and over time my team innovated less. If our team was crushing it so much, well then they couldn’t afford to risk failure because they’d be seen as incompetent. In this way it became more important for people to be seen as competent than to take risks, innovate and improve.

There is a time and place for presentation, but there’s a cost to all that crushing it, too. It can actually lead you to perform worse.

After all, you can’t look good and get better at the same time.

3. If Encore can find their transcendent purpose, your company can, too

“When a leader demonstrates that his purpose is noble, that the work will enable people to connect with something larger—more permanent than their material existence—[ then] people will give the best of themselves to the enterprise.” — Flow author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. — Simon Sinek

The path to your best expression of leadership, or level 5 leadership as Jim Collins describes it, requires a transcendent purpose. A why that galvanizes the best from your team. But many companies push back on this, saying “that’s all well and good for companies changing the world, but we don’t have a transcendent purpose. We just make widgets.”

This is a cop out. If Brandon Black can do it, anyone can.

Black, the longtime CEO of Encore Capital Group, a debt collections company who literally just tries to get people who owe other people money to pay them (perhaps one step below a used car salesman on the inspirational totem-pole) tells an amazing story about his path to transcendent leadership in his book, Ego Free Leadership, including the creation of his company’s transcendent purpose:

“To restore dignity and create a path toward financial independence.”

The book itself is a deep dive into the conscious and unconscious dimensions of leadership, and well worth the read for those managing teams. But I bring it up here because I see companies shortchange themselves and their employees all the time, not doing the work to create a transcendent purpose because they “just make widgets.”

If you find yourself struggling to establish a why for your company that gets you excited, take heart that even a collections company can do it.

4. The key to getting unstuck: releasing bad work, over and over again.

Last week a reader sent me this poster, from Ira Glass:

This captured my last 6 months so completely I had to share.

My whole childhood, I was a writer. I got a creative writing degree in college. I thought I was going to be a novelist. Then my professor told me I didn’t have anything to say, and I stopped writing. 10 years went by.

I didn’t mean to not write anything for a decade, but life got in the way. I started a few businesses, had a family, all normal things, and then after a while I was so out of practice it was hard to restart. And when I did manage to string together a paragraph my writing sucked, which made me want to do it even less.

This poster captures the lesson it took me 10 years to learn: That you have to ship a lot of bad work on your way to doing good work.

The greats in any field — writing, entrepreneurship, rocket-science — don’t start out great. They all release bad work early on. The difference between the greats and countless people you never heard of is that the greats didn’t stop there. They released bad work, even though it hurt, until it became good work. And they released good work until it became great.

So release bad work. Unabashedly. It’s the path to success.

5. Steal your ideas from comfort

And if you’re wondering how in the world to get started, if you’re thinking you don’t have time, if you’re stuck on all the life that’s in the way even before releasing bad work, there’s a solution to that, too.

Steal the time from comfort.

From Derek Sivers:

It takes many hours to make what you want to make. The hours don’t suddenly appear. You have to steal them from comfort. Whatever you were doing before was comfortable. This is not. This will be really uncomfortable.

The few times in my life I’ve made a real change like this, it felt awful on the surface. I wasn’t shallow-happy about it. I wasn’t smiling. I was annoyed and fighting it inside, but on the outside I did the work. And in the end, got the deeper satisfaction of finishing.

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