Using Stretch Goals With Your Team
Inspiring Excellence in Others
Some of the world's greatest feats were accomplished by people not smart enough to know they were impossible. – Doug Larson, journalist.
Think about some of the things people have accomplished that previously seemed impossible: examples include the Wright Brothers' first flight, space exploration, face transplantation, and the eradication of polio in India.
We can achieve greatness by setting extremely ambitious goals – these can push people to new heights and inspire them to do amazing things. However, if we set goals like this carelessly in the workplace, they can backfire and lead to loss of credibility, disengagement, stress, and burnout.
Goals like this are often known as "stretch goals." In this article, we'll look at how you can use them effectively with your team.
What Are Stretch Goals?
Sim Sitkin and his colleagues defined stretch goals as: "An organizational goal with an objective probability of attainment that may be unknown but is seemingly impossible given current capabilities."
Stretch goals are ambitious goals that challenge current assumptions and processes, and inspire teams to re-imagine what they previously thought possible. They differ from regular goals because of this level of difficulty; stretch goals seem impossible at the outset, while regular ones are perceived as challenging but achievable.
Advantages and Disadvantages
There are many advantages of using stretch goals in your organization.
They encourage creative thinking and exploratory learning, so they help people uncover new ways to improve processes, and develop products and services. This is particularly useful where teams are coasting or are "stuck in a rut."
Stretch goals can also benefit people personally. When they achieve stretch goals, they become more self-confident and more engaged, and they grow as individuals. Stretch goals force people to re-evaluate what they're capable of, which can lead to a truly transformative experience.
However, there are also some major problems that can come with stretch goals:
- Goals that are truly impossible to reach can be terribly demotivating. Team members can feel overwhelmed and dispirited if they have to achieve a goal that they know in their hearts they'll never reach.
- Top-performing teams that are already working to meet ambitious goals can experience high levels of stress, and absenteeism if they're set stretch goals.
- Another disadvantage is that stretch goals can sometimes lead to unethical behavior. People might feel under pressure to do whatever it takes to achieve the goal, even when their actions go against the organization's values or mission.
- Team members might also feel pressured to take excessive risks to meet the goal. In jobs where mistakes can cause significant damage, this can jeopardize the well-being of people and organizations.
Types of Stretch Goals
There are two types of stretch goals: "vertical" and "horizontal."
Vertical stretch goals align with current activities, organizational goals or business processes. They take these existing activities to new heights. For example, setting a goal of achieving 100 percent customer satisfaction in a month, rather than 75 percent, would be a vertical stretch goal because it builds on current activities.
A horizontal stretch goal inspires people to take on different responsibilities, develop new processes or products, or expand the organization outward in some way. For example, challenging your team to develop a new product that appeals to an entirely new target market could be one of these, because it requires them to push out and not up.
Setting Stretch Goals With Your Team
Use the strategies below when you set stretch goals with your team members.
1. Determine Whether a Stretch Goal Is Right for Your Situation
Stretch goals can be useful in some teams and situations, but disastrous in others.
For instance, these goals are often most effective with initiatives whose success isn't critical. Adding a stretch goal to critical projects may not be appropriate, because the success of these projects is absolutely necessary for the health of the organization, and a great deal of pressure and expectation is already put on team members to deliver them.
Also, stretch goals will move your team, and perhaps your entire organization, into uncharted territory. This demands a great deal of resilience, flexibility and discipline from everyone involved. Assess team members carefully before you embark on this journey, to gauge their commitment, motivation and ability to stick with the goal.
Finally, conduct a Risk Analysis and Cost/Benefit Analysis. Much of the time, it's top performers who work towards stretch goals. Their involvement means that they'll have less time to devote to their normal responsibilities, which are likely to be important to the organization. Weigh these costs carefully before you move forward.
2. Use Small Wins to Drive Progress
One of the risks often associated with stretch goals is that they can be so overwhelmingly large that people don't feel motivated to reach them.
However, think about this. A climber looking at Mt. Everest might feel that reaching the top is an impossible task. But every mountain, no matter how tall, is climbed one step at a time.
In other words, it doesn't matter how large your goal is. Your team can get there – if you break the project up into manageable steps and use those steps to move toward the larger goal.
Or, you can simply make a list of the steps you think you need to get started.
Remember, by definition, stretch goals seem impossible at the start, and it might be difficult to envision how you will achieve them before you get started. You don't always need a clear picture leading you from start to finish – sometimes, just being able to see the first few steps is all you require.
Next, set goals around each of these steps, so that team members can achieve small wins along the way. These will build confidence and motivation, and inspire everyone to keep moving forward.
As you and your team members work on your goals, make sure that you don't put too much pressure on people – the Inverted-U Model helps you think about this.
3. Provide Intrinsic Rewards
Research shows that people in high-pressure situations are more likely to engage in unethical behavior when they're motivated by extrinsic (external) rewards, such as salary increases, bonuses and praise, rather than intrinsic (internal) rewards that help them meet their emotional needs.
This certainly doesn't mean that you shouldn't use extrinsic factors to motivate your people to achieve stretch goals. However, you can make goals more intrinsically rewarding by linking them to people's values and emotional needs, and by helping your team members find the meaning behind the work they do.
4. Don't Punish Failure
Stretch goals are extremely challenging to reach, and you and your team will have to find new ways of working to achieve them.
This is why it's so important not to discourage or punish failure. Instead, look at it in a different way. For example, a 2004 study found that General Electric encouraged managers to ask three key questions when they reviewed the impact of stretch goals with their teams:
- Compared with the level of performance that existed before establishing the new stretch goal, what effect did it have on performance?
- What was the level of performance, compared with that of competitors?
- If someone hadn't met the goal, had they made meaningful progress toward it?
Each of these questions measures progress, not specific metrics for success or failure.
Be honest with your team members about the goal's difficulty but express your belief in their skills and expertise. Explain why you chose them for this project, and make sure that they understand how you will measure success.
Importantly, encourage them to take risks and learn from their mistakes. Help them to see failures as experiences that they can learn from, rather than as wasted time.
5. Provide Appropriate Support
You'll need to provide plenty of support to your people for them to achieve their stretch goals. If you don't, they'll likely get frustrated, or conclude that their work isn't important.
Make sure that they have the tools and resources they need to do their jobs properly. This includes technology, knowledge (including training and development), support, and supplies. (Bear in mind that extraordinary challenges sometimes need extraordinary resources.)
Also, make sure that you give them the time they need from you and from other leaders, and that you provide the support and encouragement they need to succeed.
6. Anticipate Resistance
By their very nature, stretch goals can be unpredictable. However, there's one thing that you can count on: there will likely be resistance to them when you first introduce them.
People may be unhappy that you have asked them to take on this enormous challenge, and there might be resistance from senior leaders who don't want top performers used for such an initiative. Participants might also have a fear of failure, especially when the chance of success is so uncertain.
Make sure that you communicate the benefits and primary purpose of your stretch goals. Be honest about the risks, and use tools like business storytelling to paint a picture of what success could mean for the organization. Then, use a tool like Beckhard and Harris' Change Equation to encourage participants to overcome their resistance to this change.
Get buy-in from other managers and key stakeholders in your organization by explaining how everyone will benefit from the goal. Try to involve other decision-makers (where appropriate), so that they have a greater investment in the initiative; this is especially important for cross-functional teams, when you must "borrow" high performers from other departments.
A stretch goal is a seemingly impossible goal that challenges people to re-evaluate what they thought was possible. It can be vertical (when it builds on existing skills or processes) or horizontal (when it encourages teams to develop new skills, processes or products).
To use stretch goals effectively in your organization, first make sure that they're right for your team. Working towards stretch goals requires flexibility, persistence and confidence, and they won't be suitable in all roles or industries.
When you set stretch goals, break them up into smaller steps, and recognize small wins to maintain motivation and engagement. Also, provide intrinsic rewards, and don't discourage failure.
Finally, provide appropriate support, anticipate and deal with resistance, and get buy-in from team members and important stakeholders.