A clearly defined goal is paramount

My upbringing on a farm has provided me with a string of nearly unbelievable stories. A goat followed me onto the school bus once. I was doing my homework outside once and the same goat came up behind me, nibbled the corner of my notebook, and literally ate my homework. And then there is the recurring saga of riding the bus home from school to frequently come upon a cow, or two, or 10, dancing around in the road near our house.

As classmates yelled, “Mooooo!” out the bus windows, my brother and I would run to the barn and get our fence-fixing bucket. Then we’d head out to chase the cattle back where they belong and fix the fence. This happened a lot when I was about 9-10 years old and my brother was 7-8. There was a short moment of time when we were home alone before my parents came home (times were different, we were fine, no need to call anyone about it).

What happens when a 10- and 7-year-old fix a fence? You end up fixing it again later, but that’s another story. One thing we became fairly efficient at was chasing cattle back into the pasture. When only one animal is running around it is actually more difficult. They are faster than you think and better at changing directions on a dime than you.

When there are a number of cattle together, they are often easier to gather. Even if one of the group wants to go check out a clump of grass over the hill, the others are headed in another direction and being herd animals, the lone ranger won’t be able to resist the pull of the crowd and ends up back home without too much extra sprinting on our part. At least one leader of the herd will remind the others that, “Hey, it’s been fun running around but there is food and fresh water and a shelter from the rain on this side of the fence.”

I learned that one animal out running around by themselves often ends up with great enthusiasm but easily gets lost and/or hurts themselves. More than once a search party would be sent out to help a fellow farmer find one or two cattle that went rogue. They may have seen greener grass but had no plan. They would eventually be found skinny, exhausted and dehydrated. When several were together, they almost always went back to the pasture without too much trouble and they did so at an orderly pace, keeping each other in check as they hopped back.

People are similar. We are not a bunch of cows; but we like to work together even though it can prove to be difficult at times. The end result of a small group of people working together is most often better than what one person can do on their own. Even the greatest amount of singular enthusiasm runs out of energy without help.

Wrangling cattle is not the easiest job in the world. Neither is trying to get multiple minds to work in the same direction. Sometimes wrangling your own brain is tough enough; let alone bringing the thoughts, distractions, and dreams of others along the same path for the ride to a singular destination.

The most effective group projects I’ve been involved in, and the times where it was easiest to get all the cattle back in the pasture, were or are times when the end goal is clearly understood by all involved and each person’s role in the journey is respected. With cattle, the end goal might be a bucket of grain being poured into a feed trough and they don’t get it until everyone is back. With working groups it is a goal, clearly defined from the beginning.

A lot of time and energy can be wasted trying to create something when it is not clear exactly what is supposed to be created. Without a goal there will be one person in the group who gets bored and wants to go smashing through fences. Without a goal there will be several different interpretations of what should be happening leading to a lot of head butting. Without a clear goal there will be a multitude of opportunities for inter-personal conflict within a group because a shared vision is not embraced. Without clearly defined roles, some will work very hard, exhausting themselves, and some will do very little until it comes time for accolades.

When you find yourself as part of a working group here are three things to ask for greater efficiency and collaboration: 1) What’s the specific end goal?, 2) What’s expected of me as part of this group?, and 3) How will we keep each other accountable?

Mary Beth Stutzman’s Inspiring A-Town runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays. Follow Mary Beth on Twitter @mbstutz.