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Where’s the Finish Line?

Great story that has made the rounds: A 5-year old girl made the subdivision swim team, and finished last at her first meet. The parents were upset but kept it to themselves, not wanting to dampen her spirit. The girl went on to finish last in every meet all season… and continued her streak of last place finishes through the 6- and 7-year old seasons as well.

Mom was embarrassed and going crazy, so decided to have a chat with her daughter before the first meet on the 8-year old season. She took her daughter aside and said “Honey, I want you to try really hard to win your race today.” The little girl looked up at her wide-eyed and said “This is a race? I thought we were just out here to meet people.” Upon reflection, the daughter added “You know, the lanes and all the people cheering make a lot more sense to me now.” From that point forward the girl became a top-notch swimmer, which had previously been impossible because she didn’t understand the purpose and goals of her endeavor.

Don’t let this happen in your organization. I remember interviewing the five leaders of a 40-person company and asking them individually what they expected company sales to be the following year. The estimates ranged from $125 million to $450 million dollars. Clearly these folks were not running the same race.

I also remember asking the president of a health plan that had 8 million members what he expected the membership count to be three years down the road. He answered “15 million”, at which time the rest of the leadership team had to be given oxygen! They were thinking that increasing to 8.2 million would be a positive result, only to find their leader was thinking 15. Clearly, they did not have the same idea of where the finish line was. The strategy and activities needed to increase from 8 to 8.2 would obviously be different than what would be needed to go from 8 to 15, so the lack of clarity is a significant barrier to success.

Make sure that before you engage in anything –a strategic planning process, a departmental plan, a process improvement project, change management– that all the key stakeholders have a consistent view of what success looks like. You need to make sure you are all trying to cross the same finish line.

Ralph Smith

Click here for an updated version of this story.

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