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Keeping your eye on a prize. The role of ambition in driving sustained high performance.
One of the first casualties of a recession is ambition. As the current downturn has bitten, so the focus in many organisations has turned inwards and backwards.

Leaders have found themselves on the back foot, stuck in survival mode and shrinking their organisations by cutting cost, investment and heads. In many instances the institutional priority has become identifying someone else to blame.

By contrast, however, it is clear that the recession has brought with it significant opportunity. There are several organisations that are taking advantage of these to deliver great outcomes for themselves and their stakeholders in the short-term, and establish platforms for sustained high performance over time.

Amongst the more public examples in business are Apple, Tesco (still) and, dare we say it, Ryanair. In other fields we could look at the sports of Rugby Union in Ireland and swimming in the UK, both which are gaining significant participation and share of mind. We believe that one the key leadership and strategic attributes that separates winners from the ‘also-rans’ in the current environment is ambition.

We view ambition as a vital starting point for sustained high performance. Organisations need to have it, and need to articulate what it is. It is our first area of scrutiny and focus when we start to work with clients – regardless of whether these are businesses, sporting bodies or public sector agencies.

So what, from our experience, are the characteristics of a ‘good’ ambition?

Ambition is unreasonable - it challenges the paradigm

It is important to set the bar for ambition at a level that seems, at current course and speed, to be out of reach. This creates positive dissatisfaction with the status quo, and challenges individuals and teams to think differently – deconstructing ‘good enough’ approaches and innovating to build something fundamentally better. Unreasonable ambitions are used all the time in sport by athletes and teams to push for breakthrough performance. Golfer Pádraig Harrington is a good current example, having set new goals for himself on winning three major championships that have driven him to undertake a major overhaul of his technique that appears now to be showing results. In the world of team sports we could cite the grand-slam winning Welsh rugby team of 2008 who set an ambition, at the outset of that year’s Six Nations championship, of getting through all five matches without conceding a try (having conceded nine in the previous year’s tournament. Ultimately in 2008 they conceded two.)

Ambition is captivating – it engages and energises the whole organisation

Good ambitions appeal to the emotions as well as the intellect. They capture the imagination and provide real meaning for individuals in organisations, inspiring them to give of their very best. Exactly what it is that captivates varies from one situation to the next. Pharmaceutical companies – Abbott and Genzyme are good examples – often incorporate patient outcomes into their ambitions, as the idea of improving people’s lives is compelling for their workforces at all levels. In our work with multinational subsidiaries we look to define ambitions that, while reflecting the desired corporate outcomes, motivate improved relative performance and influence of the local site. This local ‘flavouring’ of corporate ambitions acts as a powerful mobiliser of the local workforce.

Ambition is connected – it reflects the organisation’s core purpose

All institutions have a core purpose. In many instances, by virtue of the fact that we live in an economy, this core purpose is economic in nature. Businesses have as a primary objective the creation of value for shareholders, while public bodies – from hospitals, to schools to leisure authorities to government – exist to provide high-quality, cost effective services for communities. Governing bodies in sport, by contrast, have as their core purpose driving the participation and success of their sports within and across individual jurisdictions. It is important, in setting ambition, for leaders to connect that ambition to the organisation’s fundamental purpose. Sometimes this linkage is easy to establish, however more often – in business and public service in particular – achieving real alignment (in essence of stakeholder and shareholder value) represents a significant challenge.

Ambition is two-sided – it is constrained to reflect an appreciation of risk

It is argued that unfettered ambition has been at the heart of the financial services crisis. We would suggest that a key issue was insufficient implicit or explicit accounting for risk. President John F Kennedy in 1961 delivered one of the best practical examples of ambition-setting when he challenged the American people to put a man on the moon before the end of that decade and bring him back alive. As the story of Apollo 13 bears out, this overt acknowledgement of risk, when it came to the crunch, enabled Mission Control to prioritise bringing the astronauts home over having them walk on the moon.

Ambition is non-directive – it captures the destination, without prescribing the journey

One of the core reasons for setting ambition is to provoke creativity and ‘game-changing’ behaviour. In instances where the journey is defined, as well as the destination, we find that the scope for new ideas, paradigms, and behaviours is accordingly reduced. There are always constraints on how the journey might be undertaken – sometimes self-imposed, as covered in our discussion of two-sidedness above, and sometimes in the form of the law or, in sport, the rules of the game. However, to the extent possible, ambitions should be identified to leave the widest possible scope for individuals and organisations to innovate in respect of their approach.

In the current environment where ambition has, in many instances, been ‘beaten out’ of leaders and their teams, we find that reopening the question 'what do you want to achieve?’ is an effective means of provoking a progressive, optimistic conversation focused on opportunities rather than problems. As we stated at the outset, this is a key point of departure on the road to sustained high performance. Getting to strong ambitions, however, that satisfy each of the five criteria outlined above, is not easy and often takes hard work.

At pmpgenesis we are fortunate that the breadth of our expertise across the worlds of business, sport and leisure gives us a level of insight and a set of references that is uniquely powerful for working with clients on this aspect of high performance.

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Excellent article
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