Sales Goals Gone Wild?

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Brian Mazzaferri


Apr 13, 2020


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It's a truism in sales that goals are king. Everybody from the front line salesperson to the head of sales has their number to hit, and they're often encouraged to set stretch goals so that they can envision themselves landing far beyond their official quota. The thinking is that even if some individual people don't achieve these numbers, the company has gotten as much out of them as it possibly could. You know, "Shoot for the moon, since even if you miss you'll end up among the stars."

I recently re-read The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, which has an entire chapter called "Goal Crazy" devoted to the ways in which the dogged pursuit of goals can sabotage our happiness. This concept squares neatly with our mental image of the salesperson striving to beat their number - they may not be happy but gosh darn it they're going to sell as much as humanly possible. Depending on the company, they may even see this as a desirable trade-off: sacrificing workers' individual happiness to collectively push the sales numbers as high as possible.

But the big twist comes from Steve Shapiro, whose consulting work has ranged from the Fortune 100 to places you might not expect:

"Bosses are more frequently persuaded by Shapiro's other argument: that getting rid of goals, or focusing on them less fixedly, is often also the best way to extract results from employees. He seduces them with anecdotes about the effectiveness of operating goallessly, such as the tale of the Formula One pit crew with which he worked, whose members were told they would no longer be assessed on the basis of speed targets; they would be rated on style instead. Instructed to focus on acting 'smoothly', rather than on beating their current record time, they wound up performing faster."

I'll admit that this type of thinking is naturally appealing to me, especially from my time before working in sales. In the manufacturing world, frameworks like Lean and the Theory of Constraints proved decades ago that a focus on process and continuous improvement over directly focusing on outcomes can actually improve those same outcomes dramatically. The same has happened in tech with Agile frameworks like Scrum and Kanban, not to mention the DevOps movement, which is heavily indebted to those same manufacturing innovators.

That said, I also have to admit that there is something about sales goals that feels different. Certainly, if you just took away the quotas and changed nothing else, most of us seem to feel that you'd see decreased sales performance. Anecdotes from folks who claim to have seen increased revenue in this exact scenario (like Steve Shapiro above and Dan Pink in Drive) somehow feel like abstract fairy tales - "OK, but that would never work here."

I'm not sure where I land in the debate, although I know from experience that shifting the focus from outcomes to process improvement is hard. Feedback is tough for everyone, and in a complex system like the sales world, it can be blisteringly difficult to sort valuable feedback from misleading indicators (did we really win/lose that sale because of great/poor deal execution, or because of some other factor we can't fully identify?). Psychologically it's far easier to just hand out quotas and crack the whip.

One way or another, I still really love Shapiro's Formula One pit crew anecdote. It reminds me of the Navy SEAL saying "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast". While it feels counterintuitive to slow down and focus on fundamentals, skills coaching, and process improvement, ultimately that approach can lead to the fastest performance over the long run.

Brian Mazzaferri is an Enterprise Solution Engineeer @ Slack and contributor to PreSales Collective.

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