If you want to drive your organization to a higher level of success, here’s a word of advice: set some ambitious goals. No one ever unlocked the leadership capabilities, creativity and passion of their employees by asking for modest gains. Unfortunately in our “prove-it-before-you-do-it” ROI world, some organizations limit risk-taking and inadvertently penalize those who consistently think outside the box. The result is an organization as demoralized as it is bored.
In advertising, this propensity can be deadly. The best advertising people thrive on risk-taking because that’s where the big breakthroughs live. And breakthrough advertising helps build brands and profits. When the pressure to limit risk and drive down costs is overwhelming, it shows in safe, lackluster work.
Lou Tice, personal coach extraordinaire, reminded Seattle’s downtown Rotary last month that setting unrealistic, audacious goals actually increases the likelihood that the goal will be achieved. This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s actually good common sense. Those who set small goals never stretch and grow. So sacred cows thrive, people stay in their comfort zones, the quality of their work suffers, and they influence others to underachieve. Conversely, when people set outlandish goals, the only way they can achieve them is by changing the way things are done, moving into a new zone where innovation can flourish, and turning sacred cows into hamburger.
One of the most dramatic examples of the benefits of setting big goals can be found right here in Seattle. Several years ago, City Librarian Deborah Jacobs and Executive Director of the Seattle Public Library Foundation Terry Collings decided to dream big. In what became the “Libraries for All” initiative, her team set about rebuilding the entire public library system here in Seattle. Not content with providing a much-needed facelift to the facilities, they wanted to show the world that Seattle was serious about opening our doors to anyone who was hungry for information. Reaching this goal required better facilities, more resources for books and programs, and innovative thinking about the role of the library in the digital age.
An amazing thing happened. Their goal was so breathtaking, and the leadership so resolute about achieving it, that momentum started to build. In 1998 Seattle voters approved a $196.4 million bond measure, the largest library bond measure in American history. This funded construction of the new library buildings. Private support flowed into the foundation as momentum built and this provided much needed support to buy books and expand programs. As an icon of this bold, new initiative, the foundation hired the controversial Dutch architect, Rem Kulhaus, to design what has since become the new Central Library, a building universally lauded for both its architectural merit and for bringing the library into the 21st century.
When the Central Library opened, The New York Times architectural critic wrote: “At a dark hour, Seattle’s new Central Library is a blazing chandelier to swing your dreams upon. If an American city can erect a civic project as brave as this one, the sun hasn’t set on the West. In more than 30 years of writing about architecture, this is the most exciting new building it has been my honor to review. I could go on piling up superlatives like cars in a multiple collision, but take my word: there’s going to be a whole lot of rubbernecking going on.”
Today, every single community library in the Seattle system is being renovated or rebuilt.
And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that in 2005 we were named the “most literate city in America” by an annual Central Connecticut State University study.
Most people involved in this monumental accomplishment consider it a career-crowning achievement. It started as a goal that seemed too big to achieve, but teamwork, tenacity and out-of-the-box thinking brought this bold idea to its unabashed triumph.
With its unrelenting focus on ROI, corporate America may be crushing the kind of innovation that built our new Central Library. And what is particularly ironic is that bold action often provides a better ROI in the long term than a so-called safer approach. That’s why it’s incumbent upon those of us in advertising and marketing to make the case for risk-taking. We need to push back on the money people and request budgets that allow for innovation, and even the occasional failure. The more conservative, risk-averse philosophy may look sensible, but an approach that guarantees conventional thinking, bland solutions, and modest returns is far from it.