The current conventional wisdom is that the most effective leaders inspire exceptional performance by setting goals and then giving their team autonomy on how to achieve them.

Daniel Pink popularized this notion in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”. He argues that autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives – (along with mastery and purpose) is an essential driver of motivation, which in turn leads to superior results.

Research coming out of Stanford calls this recommendation into question. The research suggests that when it comes to driving achievement of particularly challenging objectives that are material to the success of your business, leaders should be flexible in their approach to setting goals, but once a direction has been agreed upon, they should be rigid with the steps to achieve it.

Why the Emphasis on Rigidity?

Various sources estimate that we are required to make as many as 35,000 decisions per day. A recent Harvard Business Review article, “When to Set Rigid Goals, and When to Be Flexible” put it perfectly: “In the context of an already information-overloaded, decision-fatigued workforce, one thing people will likely appreciate is the need to make fewer, not more decisions. And that’s exactly what a rigid approach to goal pursuit offers.”

The advice is that for high-stakes goals establishing and sticking to a process-driven approach is the only way to go.

For a sales manager, making Presidents Club based on team performance is a monumental goal. Winning a million-dollar deal versus your toughest competitor is a considerable challenge. Doubling the size of a strategic account is a formidable objective.

In the absence of a clearly articulated and documented step-by-step approach for continually and consistently assessing, planning, monitoring, and course-correcting how to achieve these substantial goals, your chances of success are diminished from the start. There is just too much at stake and too many variables and relationships to manage. Why take the chance?

A Flexible Approach to Goal Setting in Sales, Huh?

On the surface, as a sales leader, the concept of being flexible in how you set goals is inconceivable. After all, you and your team have this thing called a quota, so the goal is preset and unchangeable. No room for flexibility, right?

Well, you actually have more wiggle room than you might think. The best performing sales managers huddle with their teams and then one-on-one with their reps to jointly define standards for high performance. This democratic approach to setting high-bar goals is empowering and inspiring.

The other action you as a manager can take to enable autonomy is having your reps self-identify which metrics and skill sets they want/need to improve. You provide a point-of-view and some guidance that lead to a rep-authored self-development plan. Ability to direct my own live at work – check.

By the way, doing all of the above will allow you to achieve Pink’s motivation trifecta: Autonomy + Mastery (the urge to get better at something that matters) + Purpose (the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves). Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner! The double entendre is deliberate.

Reps Want a Rigid Approach. Really?

Your principal role as a sales leader is to set high standards and direction and then justly but obsessively drive execution. We covered how to goal set and plan in a flexible manner, but you shouldn’t be afraid of being “rigid”.

Your salespeople want you to lead. They expect and take comfort in knowing you have systems and a consistent approach to how you manage them and the various key processes – territory/account/opportunity development – whose execution excellence will dictate their success and yours.

Also, ‘rigid’ is not a four-letter word, figuratively and literally. In other words, if your processes are built on peer-practices that have proven to yield quota-busting results, then your sales reps will line up all day long to follow “rigid” approaches that will get them to Club next year.

The Rigid Road Map

  • Be consistent and exacting in enabling, expecting, inspecting, guiding, and acknowledging quality development and presentation of Quarterly Business Plans/Reviews that answer the question, “How will I blow out my number?” The plans should detail: a) what needs to get done to win key deals, b) the strategy and steps to build a high-value pipeline; c) what might threaten goal achievement; and d) the risk mitigation plan to minimize the chance of failure.
  • Always use your sales process as the framework to assess deal status and risks, plan next steps, and outline the pre-call plan for the very next prospect conversation.
  • Schedule and facilitate a monthly strategic-account growth-planning meeting for your top high-potential accounts with key internal stakeholders to identify white space opportunities, assess threats and risks, define milestones, track progress, and coordinate next steps.
  • Employ “radical candor” (i.e., tough love) when commitments to the plans/processes are not kept.

“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment” is a popular motivational quote. I’d like to offer that when it comes to achievement of substantial and meaningful goals, the requisite “rigid” mindset needs to be, “Process-discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”

Rigid or flexible: what’s your take?