Dismantling some sandbags

I typically meet two approaches in relation to goal or target setting:  people who target a bold ambition or those that ‘sandbag’ their aims.

If as leaders of organisations and teams, we want people to be ambitious – to be creative and drive our performance, practices or culture forward, it’s critical that we understand the difference and causes between these two approaches.

It could literally mean the difference between astonishing success and outright failure.

A sandbag approach

This approach to goal setting is centred around completion.  As a person or team sets their targets, they choose objectives that are intentionally within known capability.

Some examples might be:

  • a salesperson who sets low targets
  • a development team commits to attempt only some small enhancements for a product
  • a project manager that habitually doubles all date estimates

In all these cases, targets are small and easier to hit.  There is little or no risk and a scorecard at the end of the period will most probably show up ‘green’.

An ambitious approach

This approach to goal setting is centred around a greater aspiration.  As a person or team sets their targets, they choose large, stretching, courageous and, potentially paradigm-changing goals.

Some examples might be:

  • a salesperson setting high targets in a new sector
  • a customer team aiming at a revolutionary change to their service
  • an infrastructure team targeting removal of 95% of toil* activity

In these cases, targets are large and unlike the sandbags, have a reasonable (or high!) chance of failure.  The scorecard at the end of the period is unlikely to be fully green – there will be some reds or ambers for sure.

Why does this matter?

I stated at the beginning that this is the difference between astonishing success and outright failure.  That’s a big claim, but one I stand by.

To explain, imagine a scale with “sandbagging” on the left and “ambition” on the right.  If your team or organisation is dominated by people who (for reasons in the next section) sandbag their goals, you can never reach your potential.  Everyone is operating below their capability.

If by contrast you have at least some people (and ideally everyone) including ambitious goals in their work, you are engaging much more of their capability.  To achieve big goals, you need creativity, drive, energy and importantly, even if some of those goals fail to connect, the learning and experience grows your company every time.

Here’s an example from Google. 

In 2008, a target was set to reach 20 million 7-day active Chrome users.
They failed to reach the number.
In 2009, the target was revised to 50 million.
They failed to reach the number, reaching 38 million.
In 2010, the target was revised again, and this time to 111 million
They achieved this, and today have well over 1 billion users.

The targets aren’t being sandbagged.  No-one is adjusting their ambition, like “I set that too high, I’ll revise it down”.  Google revised their targets up. Just look at what happened.

A quote from Michelangelo does well to sum up the point:

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”


Why do people sandbag?

There are a few reasons why people take this approach.  By knowing that – and testing in your own organisation – you can begin to address them.

Cultural approach to failure

How comfortable are you with failure and learning from it? 

If your culture expects success, and is openly tough on failure, it follows that people will adjust their ambitions to be ‘safe’.  For example, if the conversations in my pay review centre around ‘Did you achieve your objectives?’, I’d be very tempted to limit goals to make sure I could say ‘yes’.

Fixed Processes

Extending on cultural approach to failure, many organisations have processes – reward, appraisals, QBRs etc – that are organised around binary statuses:  we did or did not achieve.

If to be successful by these statuses, a person must achieve, the system is pushing people towards sandbags. 

More, if your organisation is under scrutiny from external assessors (e.g. an ISO accreditation) and you need to demonstrate progress this can lead to lower ‘tick-box’ ambition.

Missing the big picture

Creativity in organisations often comes from connecting knowledge – awareness of how things are now combined with imagination or external input.   If the ‘big ideas’ for these bold targets need broader knowledge, teams who aren’t connected with ‘why’ or existing activities will be held back.

Lack of confidence

Where individuals lack self-confidence or worry about their experience and ability to deliver a goal, they will hold back.  Back to culture, if the consequences of failure are punitive this issue will be amplified.

Lack of engagement

Working towards ambitious goals may take significant work, energy and commitment.  It might mean longer hours, complex problems or difficult negotiations with partners, customers or teams. 

If a person is engaged and connected to the organisation, that’s one thing, but if they are unhappy or disillusioned it’s far less likely you’ll see them volunteer this effort.

A bit of human nature

Humans are social animals and we know how important being ‘part of the group’ can be – indeed we are motivated by social positioning, social acceptance, loss and fear of rejection**.  In that way, admitting failure or shortfall exposes us to embarrassment and loss – worse being ejected from the group.  We are programmed to not want that!

What can I do differently?

If you’d like to help your teams set more aspirational goals, start by looking at the above reasons for sandbagging in your own organisation to give you a picture.  Do these habits or circumstances exist?  Are they creating behaviours that are holding you back?  From this you can start to discuss, experiment and review how approaches are changing over time.

A big point in here is redefining or changing the narrative about individual success.  Is an individual successful and recognised if they hit 100% of a pedestrian goal, or are they successful and recognised if they reach 70% of something remarkable through their ingenuity, drive and tenacity?

It’s also worth looking at OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) as a practice to amplify your approach to objective setting but be aware their effectiveness will be stifled by all of the sandbagging reasons above.  Fix those first!

* Toil is a Google term used as part of their Site Reliability Engineering practices:  “Toil is the kind of work tied to running a production service that tends to be manual, repetitive, automatable, tactical, devoid of enduring value, and that scales linearly as a service grows”.  Read more here:  https://landing.google.com/sre/sre-book/chapters/eliminating-toil/

** If you’re interested in this, read our Changing IT Up eBook or lookup the triune model the brain created by Paul MacLean – specifically the role of the paleomammalian complex.

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