How to Achieve the Impossible

IT managers, Lori and Ann, were both shocked when they were given their latest projects. What this new client wanted was really complicated, and their teams were already about to tip over, not to mention the ridiculous time frame the sales team had committed to. “Why don’t they ask us before making these impossible commitments?” “What are they smoking? We can’t possibly do this!” ​ They both knew better than to say what was on their minds. ​​

But now the tough part. Telling their teams.

Feeling the urgency, Lori immediately called her team together for a quick huddle. Her team knew there was trouble by the look on her face, before she even said a word. And then she looked at them sincerely, “Guys, I’m so sorry. We’ve been given an impossible deadline, and I know you’re already working so hard. We’re just going to have to do the best we can. Here are the parameters…”

Ann took her cell phone to the parking lot and vented to her husband. Then she took a walk and cleared her head. She had to figure out a way to do this without crushing the team. Back at her desk, she sent out a quick calendar invite for 8 a.m. the next morning labeled “Launch Project Flying Colors”–no other details.

Intrigued, her team got there a bit earlier than usual to find the conference room filled with colorful helium balloons and streamers, along with blank white easel sheets plastering the walls. She had a medley of upbeat “color” themed songs playing on her iPhone.

“Guys, we’ve been given an exciting challenge and I’m sure we’re going to pass it with flying colors. It’s going to be hard, perhaps the most difficult thing we’ve accomplished, which is why I’ve brought us here to get really creative on the best path forward. Let me outline the parameters we have to work with, and then we’re going to work together to make a game plan.”

How to Galvanize Your Team to Achieve the Impossible

Don’t get me wrong. I’m fully aware that hard work is still hard work. But I’ve seen a little bit of galvanizing magic go a long way in sparking creativity and getting folks into a “Yes, we can!” mindset.

To galvanize your team toward achieving the possible…

Make winning feel like a sport.

In sports, nothings more fun than winning when the odds are stacked against you. A game of lay-ups would be a real yawner. Tap into the sporting side of human nature.

Be clear why every role matters.

Watch any Little League game and at some point there will be a kid in the outfield with his finger up his nose. Not so in the major leagues. Be sure everyone on the team has a valuable role and is deeply connected to the vision.

Identify specific skills and behaviors needed for success in every role.

Be sure that every team member knows the behaviors they must exhibit for success.

Align team member’s passions with purpose.

Tap into skills and abilities that may be outside of the person’s day job. Nothing galvanizes people more than being able to do what they love while adding value.

Acknowledge challenges and obstacles, and include the team in finding solutions.

Go ahead, admit that it’s tough. “Heck yeah, those parameters are ridiculous. But we’ve got to find a way to do it. What would we do if we did know how to make this happen?”

Articulate a winning game plan.

Be clear on the actions of who will achieve what by when. Build in natural celebration points along the way.

When you develop a reputation for being a galvanizer, folks will knock down your door to join you the next time. Winning well is fun.

Posted in Communication, Employee Engagement & Energy and tagged , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. I LOVE Ann’s approach!

    I’ve been on teams where the leadership set crazy goals and even crazier incentives. No one was motivated and everyone deflated by the minute just thinking about the impossible task ahead. In another organization, around the time of the Global Financial Crisis we were struggling, our sales were low and we were going to have to face some big-time layoffs. The directive from above was everyone needed to start selling or at least turning over qualified targets to the sales team. We made it into a friendly competition to see who could get the most and also came together as at team to talk about incentives. Everyone on board, our list of leads started to grow expotentially and the work started to come in too. We reviewed progress as a team and celebrated those people whose leads turned into jobs for our consultants. It took a bad situation and made it fun (and lucrative too!)

    As always, great insights worth sharing.

    Thanks, Karin!

  2. Excellent story and post, Karin!

    It is so interesting when team leaders need to rally their troops, they can dig deep to find innovative ways to connect with them. People want to feel part of something important and want to do meaningful work. I partnered with a team leader who energized their team by making sure they rolled up their sleeves too and jumped in head first. There is nothing better than setting an example of “I’ll start first”.

    Thanks Karin!

  3. I love how you use “story” to get your reader really involved in the issue!

    Attitude is everything! Ann’s approach was wonderful. It was creative, upbeat, and full of energy. We’ve all been faced with “impossible” tasks and yet we all do find a way of pulling it off. Positivity is key to the way we approach everything in life.

    • LaRae, Thanks so much. You are such a role model of positivity.

  4. Attitude is everything – or almost everything. Both leaders demonstrated their approach to leading and sometimes a leader having an attitude of success is half the battle. The difference this can make? A leader with the right attitude (a) models appropriate behavior, (b) sees challenges as opportunity, (c) probably understands how a team must come together, and (d) will treat project checkpoints differently. I’m just brainstorming about this last one, about checkpoints. But perhaps the leader with the “go get ’em” attitude will use benchmarks as a time to celebrate or pat on the back instead of a time to say “Oh, no another 6 miles to go.” I’d rather be the celebrating kind of leader. Well said, Karin!

    • David, thanks as always for your insightful comments. You really expanded the conversation with your additional points.

  5. It’s a great article, Professor Hurt! You used a short story and a comparison to make the point clear. Lori is not a bad manager—she is truthful and sympathetic to her team members. But she is far from being a galvanizer. In this case, Ann sets a good example in galvanizing team members to achieve “mission impossible”. Actually, to galvanize is not simply to stimulate impulses. To truly galvanize a team, a leader has to empower the team members to bring out their initiatives and instill long-term passion for the mission. What Ann did the best are to see opportunity in challenge and embrace it. Once she embraced the challenge, she can easily gain clear goal and strong motivation and pass them to her team in creative ways.
    Another thing worth mentioning is that Ann brought the whole team on board to brainstorm and make the game plan. By doing this, she gave all the team members a sense of ownership of the strategy and plan for the “mission impossible”. Meanwhile, she could also have a better understanding of the role each one can take in achieving the goal and how to incentivize them during work. Simply put, what she did corresponds to the five golden principles you articulated at the end.
    The five principles can serve as a general guidance for galvanizers. However, there are also many specifics of “leading as a galvanizer”. Questions as follows may arise:
    • Which one is the better incentive—recognition or money?
    • How to get the employees out of their comfort zone? And when is the time to stop pushing them?
    • Should the leader encourage instant, on-the-spot feedback?
    • How to get the team members to understand your point of view and cultivate their self-guidance?
    Hopefully, I can have clearer answers to such questions when reading your other works.

    • Aluna,
      Thanks so much for your very well articulated and thoughtful comment here. I love your words “to galvanize is not just to stimulate impulses.” You raise very important questions here, all worth discussing further. I think we should discuss then in class tonight!

  6. Professor Hurt, I love the way you use a little story to get me interested in the topic.
    In my opinion, when an impossible task is ahead, people would feel deflated to reach them. However, just like every mountain, no matter how tall, is climbed one step at a time. So if you break the project up into manageable steps and use those steps to move toward the larger goal, your team can reach the impossible. Next, set goals around each of these steps, so that team members can achieve small wins along the way. These small wins will build confidence and motivation, and inspire everyone to keep moving forward.
    People may be unhappy when you have asked them to take on this enormous challenge, and might also have a fear of failure especially when the chance of success is so uncertain. So I think as a good leader, you should know what your employees expect from their jobs, and try your best to address their needs. This can help to motivated them and align their motivation to your shared purpose. You can communicate the benefits and primary purpose of your goal, try to paint a picture of what success could mean for the organization and also themselves. Additionally, giving your team member some rewards towards their needs and helping your team members find the meaning behind the work they do.

    • Wendy, Great insights. I love the thought of really seeing it from their perspective and aligning with the employee’s needs.

  7. Well thought article. I believe that in addition to acknowledging challenges , the leader may communicate ways to overcome these challenges at a individual level. For example, the leader may share his personal experience in dealing with similar challenges.

  8. I strongly agree that “Make winning feel like a sport” is the most significant part in galvanizing a team. In Ann’s case, she describes the impossible project as a challenge, just like a sport game which can cheer the team members and maximum their potential ability by challenge them. On the contract, Lori keeps saying that “I know it is hard” which reduced the morale.
    Also, I believe team leader’s attitude is also important. If the team leader loss confidence in the project, other team member would be influenced heavily. Ann does great job by showing positive and confident attitude. However, Lori seems show understanding and tries to be thoughtful, her words could make her team members feel like “failure is a matter of course because you said so”.
    Overall, I feel Ann uses a very successful way to galvanize her team.

  9. Professor Hurt,that’s a very great article. I absolutely agreed with it. Just like what we learned tonight, motivation is an important factor in our work. Most of time we only know what we need to do, but we don’t know why we need to do. As a leader, he/she should galvanize his/her team especially when they face heavy duties. For example, the new iPhone will be sold on September 2015. The manufacturer of the new iPhone need to product 100 million iPhone in 2 months. Now the manager may face the problem that how can they motivate the workers to improve their efficiency and let them know why they do their works. The assemble line workers such as the screw workers do the same and boring jobs every day. They only know their jobs are to assemble the screw, but they don’t know why they do these. If the manager told them that IPhone is the new trend of the technology and it can change people’s life. The small screw is an important part of the phone. Without the small screw, the phone can’t work effectively. The manager should galvanize his/her team that what they do is changing the world and very meaningful. I believe that after recognizing the reason, the workers will work harder and harder.

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