The "Dream Big" Paradox: When it is ok to shoot for the moon and when it is not.

August 30, 2020 | Leadership & Management | Written by Mohamed Soliman

Today, we have the case of Kristy who shared that her main goal is to transform her newly assigned team into the "most efficient team in the organization within the next 2 to 3 years." "I go big or I go home," she said.

As a high achiever, she was in cognitive dissonance. On one hand she was aware that this is a moonshot goal within the timeframe she put on herself. On the other hand, she believes that will power can make anything happen. With some negotiations and reality-checks, she agreed that she might be better off is to gain small wins with her team before focusing on her “Dream Big” goal.

Kristy is not alone. We are all guilty of this “Dream Big” paradox. For example, academicians aspire to get their research published in one of the top handful of journals in their field. Should the idea and the work be novel enough, why not shoot for the moon? On one hand, academicians know that achieving such a goal requires prior success in publishing in similar caliber journals. On the other hand, they also suffer from "optimism bias." The “Dream Big” creates motivation and drive in us and in our teams that "we can shoot for the moon" if we go bold and work hard.

We live in a culture that creates the delusion that "everything is possible if we dream big." In Collins & Porras’s bestseller Built to Last, “big, hairy, audacious goals” was a motto. Amazon, Google, Space X, Apple, and many others are examples that exemplify exceptional, bold goals. However, we do not hear about the hundred leaders and managers - both in academic and professional institutes - that tried the same strategy ... and failed miserably.⁣

Our conversations made me think: when is it okay to aspire for a moonshot and when should we focus on smalls wins, or even minimize losses?

The answer comes from the work of Stikin, Lawless, and Carton, Duke University, in their 2011 award-winning Academy of Management Review article. The defined "stretch goals" as targets that are extremely difficult (e.g. finishing a project that usually takes two years in six months) and extremely novel (e.g. finishing the project in six months require novel approaches). These two criteria distinguish “stretch goal” from challenging goals. “Stretch goals” are motivating and inspiring. Yet assessing risk before leaping forward helps professionals understand when radical goals do or do not work.

⁣The authors' work suggests two essential factors to achieve “stretch goal” a) one recently exceeded the standard benchmark and b) has a surplus of resources that could be used to try new things. Professionals and organizations without a recent success or extra resources are, paradoxically, the ones who try to shoot for the “stretch goals.” Why is that?

Psychologically, this makes sense. When we struggle, we are faced to make a decision that involves a low-, medium- or high-risk choice. Setbacks put us in a high risk-taking mindset to get over recent failures. Our minds consciously or unconsciously ignore the tight resources and “hope for the best.”

⁣In this example, when should Kristy consider a bold move?.

⁣a) she recently led a team where she turned things around significantly in a 2-3-year timeframe

AND

b) she has loose resources at her disposal that gives her the flexibility to try different approaches - or hire people with specialized expertise - that could help her achieve this goal.

What would be the case if Kristy did not have either a recent stellar success or the flexibility in the time and resources needed to achieve her stretch goal? She does not have to give up her "Dream Big" goal. Yet, she could try three options. They will give her confidence and help her keep motivated.

1. Small wins. If the path ahead is uncertain or the resources are tight, achieving small wins - ones that require limited effort and limited time- boosts confidence. They also lay the foundation for achieving bigger goals down the road. Small wins do not guarantee the success of a stretch goal, yet it keeps the momentum and the motivation to move forward.

2. Build resources. When the resources are tight, extra time could be used to build up the expertise and the knowledge needed to achieve the big goal. If a specific knowledge is needed for Kristy, she could attend specialized courses or reach out to leaders she admires and has achieved a similar goal in the past. If she has extra cash, she could hire a coach or mentor who would serve as an impartial opinion during her future journey.

3. Minimizing the loss. This is the option for those who did not have a stellar success yet but possess unutilized resources. They can afford to try different approaches - or side gigs - and learn from the small losses before moving to the next small test. This approach is common in R&D teams. Leaders assume that high failure is the baseline and the target is a 1-2 successful outcomes. Like small wins, this approach enhances confidence and momentum

Conclusion

The “Dream Big” is suitable for professionals or organizations who have both recent success AND extra, underutilized resources - time, knowledge, expertise, or cash. Shooting for the moon is motivating and inspiring, but only shooting for the moon can lead to repeated disappointments and falling into the binary bias of going big or going home.

What if they do not have either a recent big success or loose resources at their disposal? It means they are either successful with limited resources or recently unsuccessful but have additional resources that could be mobilized. This does not mean they have to be risk-averse. They can, however, readjust to

1) achieve small wins,

2) build the expertise required to achieve the big goal, or

3) experiment with low-risk small losses.