The starting line for a marathon is a surprisingly great place to people watch. First, you see the professional runners in the front, quietly going through their finely-tuned routines. As you move your way back through the hundreds of runners in the crowd, you can start to feel the change in the crowd from "I'm here to win!" to "I'm just here to finish!"
One of the biggest differences between these two groups is in their pre-race preparation. While average runners tend to mill around and socialize before the starting gun, professional runners go through a choreographed warm-up routine, stay focused on the task at hand, and discuss their strategy with their coach. With these actions, the pros prepare to run their best race possible in a way that many average performers don't.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is the way these top performers prepare to lose. Top performers know that there is a useful value in failure, but you have to learn from the experience for it to be worthwhile. With that in mind, professional runners know they have to take key steps to be ready for a poor race, or their bad day will be for nothing.
The same is true in business. It isn't enough to set lofty goals and work towards them. You have to be ready to quickly identify mistakes and learn from them if you want to compete.
The first step for preparing to fail is defining success. Take the time to visualize not just the finish line, but also what you'll need to do to get there. By plotting a well-defined path to your goal and determining the pace needed to get there on time, you'll have the information you need to know when you fall off course and need to change your strategy. This helps you avoid the worst case scenario of realizing you've missed your goal only when you've reached your deadline.
How: Start by using the SMART goals format to define your goal to ensure your objective has the details you'll need so you'll know precisely whether or not you've gotten there. Then, consider building out a brief project plan, using a Gantt chart or other timeline method, including milestones and key dates. This will help you understand what will be needed to reach your goal, and anticipate any difficulties along the way.
Track Your Progress
By the same token, if you are falling off your needed pace, you'll want to know as soon as possible. Professional runners wear a watch for just that reason. They constantly collect data during the race to guage their progress against their race plan. Collecting information to track your progress will help you make necessary adjustments to stay on track.
Collecting data on your progress is useful not only as you work towards your current goal, but also for future goals. This historical data gives you the advantage of context by identifying seasonal or situational factors that might help or hurt your progress.
How: Whether you use something as simple as a spreadsheet, or as powerful as a goal tracking tool, you will need a system in place for making regular updates. Since your understanding of your progress is only as good as your data, it is important to assign the responsibility of updating project data, and ensure that person has enough time to dedicate to keeping the records accurate and the data fresh.
Leverage Timely Outside Perspectives
For better or worse, the adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line can cloud the reality of the experience, making it difficult to form accurate conclusions. With that in mind, most professional runners work with coaches that not only assist with training, but are vital for synthesizing data and adding an expert's perspective.
The same is true in business, and exists through managers and team leaders that assess the success of a goal and ensure their direct reports are held accountable for their performance. However, too often managers are left to deliver their feedback according to a rigid annual performance review schedule, rather than timing it closely to the completion of a project or during key project milestones while everyone's memory is fresh. Instead, feedback ends up being too late or too general to have to much value.
How: There are a couple of ways to approach solving this problem. The first is by fostering ongoing performance conversations between managers and their direct reports. Whether this is through moving to a quarterly review cycle, or encouraging regular informal performance discussions, more frequent conversations ensure feedback is delivered in a more timely and meaningful way.
Additionally, some companies institute a project post-mortem meeting or report that enables a team to discuss the results of a project and specifically discuss improvements for future projects. While this might not focus directly on how an individual performed, it does help a team form a consensus on their result and the lessons learned that can be applied in the future.
Where Nobody Runs Just to Finish
If you're running a marathon, there's nothing wrong with just trying to get across the finish line. Unfortunately, that attitude won't get you anywhere with your organization. If you want to build a high performance culture, take the tips from the people ready to take advantage of their failures.