One of my early articles for this publication was on how Royal Caribbean’s CEO Exemplifies How to Leverage Milestones. The main point was that while tracking milestones was not a revolutionary business idea, the idea of using them as a team-building tool was new to most leaders and their teams. The main addition here is the need for someone to own the milestone management process.

That earlier article looked at CEO Richard Fain’s approach to milestone management. His emphasis on milestones was not a surprise, as ship builders have been leveraging milestones’ emotional impact for millennia. Ship builders celebrate “keel laying” as the formal start of construction, naming, stepping the mast (accompanied by placing coins under the mast for good luck), christening (accompanied by breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow), a whole range of trials, “sail away”, hand over, and my personal favorite – onboarding the new captain.

As Richard explained to me,

“If you don’t establish early on key milestones – long-term milestones rather than the short-term milestones – you get caught in the ‘next week’ syndrome. I can’t think of a project that we are doing or have done (during which we do not) get to a key point and everybody says ‘We’re going to know so much more next week or the week after.’ And so the focus shifts to next week or the week after and we all desperately wait for that period. Meanwhile the longer-term milestone goes by the wayside.

So, what we tend to do is say we need to know where we’re going. We need to know what we expect to have at the end. And so we talk a lot about our end point rather than the waypoints.”

Milestones for Team Building

What Richard did particularly well was leverage milestones both as a way to keep big projects on track – like building a ship, a new computer system, or a major marketing program – and to keep smaller projects on track. They also provided him with excuses to encourage all involved along the way. He went to major events. He participated in new ship trials so he could experience the excitement of how the ship performs. Then he shared that excitement with others in his meetings, talks, videos, blog, and all forms of communication.

Richard talked about how “letting people know you care is of surpassing value” in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton. The links with his approach to milestones came through. He built a team of people that try to surpass – and he gave them milestones to beat. He knew that people value recognition – and he leveraged milestone ceremonies to recognize their achievements whether it was the first time people could actually walk on board and see a ship, or the first look at the prototype of a new computer system.

Royal Caribbean liked to build models so people could see and touch tangible things and know what they were going to do. They modeled staterooms, software, and marketing materials. When a project got to a certain point, they gave it a name. “It’s interesting how giving that project a name galvanizes people around it – because it makes it more tangible to them.”

One of its big projects was the creation of a central gathering area on the ship “Oasis of the Seas.” This area – which was aptly named Central Park — was located in the middle of the ship and opened to the sky for five decks. To celebrate the design, it created a full-size model of part of this open space in the massive hangar-like building where parts of the ship were being built in Finland. Also, the company treated the whole team to an alfresco fine dining experience so they could celebrate the space.

“It was a magical evening …We were having a lovely cruise dinner in Finland (in early Spring – when it’s still cold outside)… It made us all realize how special the space would be and that it was worthy of the effort to really make sure that not only was the overall space good, but that all the details were perfect.”

Once they know you care, then you can challenge them. As Fain said in an interview with Adam Bryant for the New York Times, “My experience is that people love to be challenged. If the challenge is reasonable, or even slightly unreasonable, they love it and they rise to the occasion. There’s just no question. People love to be challenged and they love to show off their skills and talents.”  Aggressive, but doable milestones create just such a challenge.

Fain did well, serving as Royal Caribbean’s CEO for 33 years. The main ideas in that article still hold. Our prescription is still that compiling milestones is a waste of time if you do not have an efficient, effective and clear process and process owner in place to track them – and avoid the “next week” syndrome.

Define them and begin tracking and managing to them immediately. Use the process to establish and reinforce expected team norms.

  1. Get milestones in place.
  2. Track them and manage them as a team on a frequent and regular basis.
  3. Implement a milestone management process with a particular emphasis on solving problems and celebrating wins – as a team. (With your own version of a lovely al fresco cruise dinner in a warehouse.)

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