Not long ago I received this question from the CEO of a client company:

What is the best way to try to change the concept of 70% vs 100% achievement of OKRs? Over many years we have built a culture that anything less than 100% target achievement is undesirable. Telling people that 70% is acceptable represents a complete perception change for us.

Is 70% the Real Target?

He was of course referencing the now canonical advice, offered by John Doerr in Measure What Matters and parroted by OKRs consultants world-wide, that when writing OKRs you should create aspirational targets that represent breakthrough performance. It may not be possible to achieve 100% of such wildly optimistic targets, but even 70% could represent a step change in performance, which renders that level of accomplishment acceptable.

In his note to me, the CEO referenced above also said, “We can’t be the only company in this position.” Truer words have never been spoken. The “Is 70% achievement okay” issue surfaces with virtually every organization OKRsTraining.com works with. Why? Because at its core it is diametrically opposed to a principle in place at most companies, which states that anything less than 100% performance on goals is unacceptable, often with negative consequences.

This, of course, is a deeply ingrained cultural artifact of many modern businesses – nothing less than perfection is tolerable. The situation offers a classic good news / bad news scenario. The bad news: It is a cultural phenomenon, and cultures are notoriously difficult to change, especially in the short term. The good news: Cultures can be changed. The question is how do you successfully navigate this particularly thorny issue? Of course you want your teams to fully achieve their goals, but you also want to encourage the learning, risk-taking, and innovation that are often the by-product of goals that challenge the team.

As Goes the Leader, So Goes the Culture

Challenging the dominance of 100% goal achievement is no easy task. We’re all familiar with the caricature of the tyrannical boss, steam rising from his forehead, as he’s about to tear into a feckless subordinate who missed his quarterly targets. Perhaps one or two names or images are springing to mind for you right now. Unfortunately, most of us have borne witness to these attacks and have been left with an indelible psychological scar that reminds us to never commit to anything less than perfection.

As is the case with many seemingly intractable organizational dilemmas, senior executive modeling of the desired behavior is key to overcoming this particular challenge. The CEO must create a safe space for teams and individuals – encouraging them to pursue audacious goals, but emphasizing the learning and potential future wins that result from less than perfect actual results. That doesn’t mean unquestioned acceptance or tolerance for lackluster efforts. On the contrary, missed targets are diligently analyzed and used as a chance for learning – what happened? What did we assume would happen that didn’t occur? What can we do differently going forward?

An American Icon

When he was CEO of Ford Motors (circa 2008), Alan Mulally used this approach very well. In the book “American Icon,” which chronicles his time at the helm of the automotive giant, there are recollections of meetings early in his tenure during which all metrics were showing green, while the company was losing colossal sums of money. Although he was clearly frustrated (at one point he wondered aloud how nothing could be wrong when they could potentially lose billions) he remained patient and kept repeating the message about sharing challenges in order to learn.

Prior to Mulally’s tenure the culture of Ford was one of intense internal competition and not hitting your targets would be seen as a weakness more likely to have you fired than welcomed as a torch bearer for future learning. But Mulally changed the paradigm at Ford and eventually his persistence and faith were rewarded when finally a senior executive admitted in a meeting that he was about to miss a launch date with a new vehicle and needed help. The room went silent as the executives awaited the CEO’s response. What did he do? He gave the struggling executive a round of applause for his courage, vulnerability, and desire to seek help in overcoming the challenge. Clearly it was a new day at Ford.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Cultures that have taken years, sometimes decades, to become calcified don’t change overnight, and thus the “70% versus 100% challenge” is not a dragon you can expect to slay in one or two quarters. If, however, you have patience and belief in the power of inquiry and learning, and are willing to create a safe environment for your teams, you will – just like Mulally at Ford – see a change emerge and witness the birth of a powerful new culture of resilience and learning.

Paul Niven is the author of Objectives & Key Results, Driving Focus Alignment and Engagement with OKRs, the President of OKRsTraining.com, and a Global OKRs Coach with clients around the world.