Are Stretch Goals an Effective Way of Inspiring Success in Your Team?

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The key to success is building a team that is ambitious, motivated, driven, and willing to step out of their comfort zone to achieve the impossible.

Often companies will focus on job requirements- the bare minimum of what an employee should be achieving to stay afloat- but this static mindset does not promote growth. Although accomplishing required tasks is important, it’s crucial to not just stop there; the best leaders and employees strive to go above and beyond these expectations. 

This concept of aiming higher in your work is called a stretch goal, pioneered by Jack Welch at GE. His idea was to set a goal that was seemingly impossible, one that had never been met and nobody knew how to achieve yet. It would be a goal that required creativity, commitment, and drive to achieve. Stretch goals were picked up by many other companies such as Google, and eventually became a core part of their company’s culture. 

Although there are success stories driven by stretch goals, many claim that they can have negative impacts on employees and even the organization.

We’ll be discussing the pros and cons of stretch goals, why sometimes they fail, and how you can implement stretch goals within your company to make them more effective. 

What is a Stretch Goal?

If you think of stretching, your mind most likely goes to stretching your shoulders, legs, or any of your muscles to increase flexibility. The idea of stretching is to reach a place that you previously couldn’t.

Say you can barely bend over and touch your hands to your knees; stretching every day and aiming for your toes will surely increase your flexibility little by little. At the end of the day, even if you can’t reach your toes, maybe you can at least touch your ankles. That in itself is a great accomplishment. 

In an organizational context, stretch goals in the workplace are motivated by those same ideas. Setting a stretch goal means aiming for the outrageous, something that is far out of your comfort zone and requires you to think innovatively and push yourself.

But what if you fail? That’s okay too. Even if you don’t reach your crazy goal, you’re likely to have still achieved more than if you had stuck to your basic requirements. Understanding that failure is a part of growth is one of the first steps.

If you are hitting your stretch goals every time with no problem, then your goal isn’t high enough. They’re made to push the limits so you can truly understand what you are capable of. 

To set a proper stretch goal, it has to be extremely difficult and it has to be novel, according to Harvard Business Review. For example, Southwest Airlines aimed to turn their one hour turnaround time at the airport gate to ten minutes. Tweaking and adjusting their old process wouldn’t be enough, instead, they would need to create a whole new process if they wanted to achieve their seemingly impossible goal.

However, while many companies are able to find success in their efforts of achieving their stretch goals, a great number of companies also face negative effects when setting high, seemingly unachievable goals.

So what is the difference between failure and success while using stretch goals? Is it beneficial to use, or can it cause even more harm than good? 

Pros of Stretch Goals

When implemented effectively, stretch goals can lead to innovative solutions that no one could have even imagined until pushed to do so. Like any of the great innovations in our world such as space exploration, flight, and medical breakthroughs, they required people to take risks, be creative, and stretch beyond their comfort zone. 

When teams feel like they are stuck and have no more room for growth, stretch goals inspire employees, encourage them to learn, explore, and uncover new processes and develop new products. Achieving these stretch goals not only helps teams get out of any mental blocks they’ve been stuck in but also greatly improves employee confidence and reignites their motivation, making them more engaged in their work. For employees individually, having them evaluate their capabilities and truly test themselves by trying to surpass their limits allows for a great amount of professional and personal growth.

Many of the innovations you see in your day to day life are the result of companies stretching their employees beyond what anyone thought was even possible.

One of the greatest stretch goals examples is the story of the first iPod. Business Insider tells the story of Steve Jobs’ reaction to the first iPod prototype. When engineers presented the iPod to Jobs, he wasn’t satisfied with the results and thought the product was too large. When the engineers told Jobs that it was simply impossible to make it any smaller, Jobs dropped the iPod into an aquarium tank and watched as air bubbled surfaced. He then said “Those are air bubbles, that means there’s space in there. Make it smaller.”

The iPod at the time was 19.8mm thin and eventually reached 6.1mm thin even though at the time, engineers thought it was impossible. This just goes to show how stretch goals allow people to take a shot at achieving the impossible. They are forced to think innovatively and will truly be able to understand their capabilities without any limits.

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Cons of Stretch Goals

While stretch goals in theory are beneficial, many find that they can do more harm than good. In some cases, the presence and pressure of stretch goals can be extremely demotivating.

These stretch goals are meant to inspire innovation and determination to reach a seemingly impossible level of achievement. But if employees are too scared to undertake the task, they may not know where to start and lose confidence, feeling like whatever they do won’t be enough. If an employee or team doesn’t reach any breakthroughs, motivation and morale can be completely lost, greatly hindering their productivity and well being overall. 

Another thing that can hinder productivity and wellbeing is stress, chaos, and anxiety that is sometimes caused by stretch goals. Achieving stretch goals requires employees to search for radical approaches and throw themselves into their work with a single-minded purpose. The pressure to do this can be stressful and chaotic, causing panic, hindering not only the project at hand but even other recurring tasks.

When an employee feels like they aren’t able to achieve their stretch goal, sometimes they are motivated to act unethically. They can resort to creating false information in order to reach their goal even when it may go against the values and ethics of their organization.

People often do this in an act of self-preservation and fear of underperforming. It’s important for companies to create a culture where failure is not condemned in order to decrease the chance that an employee will resort to unethical behavior.

To achieve your stretch goal, you have to step out of your comfort zone and sometimes that requires you to take risks.

Taking risks is nothing to shy away from but at some point, if the goal feels too unattainable, employees may feel a pressure to take excessive risks to accomplish their goals. Maybe an employee takes on more than they can handle and ends up with dissatisfied consumers, or make a risky decision that could cause significant damage to the organization as a whole.

These high-risk decisions may seem attractive to someone who is looking at it as a high-risk high reward situation, but it can backfire.

When Using Stretch Goals is Less Ideal

There is no guaranteed success when setting a stretch goal. Even if you are in a large company, and have many resources at hand, there will always be a risk involved when aiming to achieve the outrageous. However, there are cases where the implementation of stretch goals is likely to do more harm than good. 

If an organization is currently in a difficult position, failing to meet its own minimum requirements, the addition of stretch goals is likely to create additional stress.

Employees can feel that if they don’t reach this stretch goal, the weight of the already suffering company will fall on them. This pressure can then cause continued anxiety and demotivation, which will negatively impact the organization even further. 

Similarly, if a company’s situation doesn’t allow for the availability of sufficient resources, stretch goals are more likely not a good idea. If it is a case where resources have to be allocated as economically efficiently as possible, utilizing them on smaller, more attainable goals will be more beneficial than taking big risks with the limited resources.

Duke University explains the paradox of stretch goals in the following video. Professor Krzyzewski explains how to assess whether your organization is a good candidate for using stretch goals, and why some organizations that shouldn’t use stretch goals, use them. 

How to Make Stretch Goals more Effective

A crucial part of the success of a stretch goal is setting the right goal for you and your team. Take the time as a team to focus and brainstorm about what you want to accomplish, the possible risks, and how you are going to take on the project.

When considering stretch goals, you must have clear guidelines for both assessing and addressing any possible risks. Although goals should be imaginatively high, you as a team have to understand when the line is drawn between being bold and daring, or just not making sense.

Stretch goals are audacious and often require team members to be uncomfortable and get out of their comfort zone, so make sure that the stretch goal your team is going to pursue is decided collaboratively and communicated thoroughly. It is important to give your team the time to focus solely on setting, creating, and understanding this goal as it determines the entire future of your project.

Setting these ambitious stretch goals is just the first step, next you have to create a clear path to accomplish these goals. Companies all over the world have used SMART goals in conjunction with stretch goals for this exact purpose. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timeline; utilizing SMART goals allows you to focus on your priorities by creating narrow and attainable goals. When tackling potentially overwhelming stretch goals, it’s important to manage your projects precisely to eliminate the risk of getting panicked, stressed, and unmotivated. 

SMART goals will most definitely help in focusing on your stretch goal’s priorities, but on top of that, teams need to make sure to break down their goal into manageable, digestible parts. Tackling each smaller goal will pave the way to the success of your overall stretch goal without creating chaos and confusion.

When breaking down your goal and focusing on more narrow projects though, it’s important that you have an organized plan so that you don’t get too focused on the trivial things and lose sight of the bigger picture. 

Do your Goals Have a Stretch Component?

Many organizations around the world implement stretch goals into their company culture in hopes of achieving imaginative and innovative solutions that they otherwise would have never considered.

Using stretch goals is no guaranteed way of success and innovation but there are certain things you can do to more effectively implement them into your business. The best stretch goals motivate people to be creative, get outside their comfort zone, and become more engaged in their work.

While many companies find success in using stretch goals, others also find them harmful to their company.

Every person thinks differently and is motivated by different things; some are driven by achieving the near impossible, while others are driven by consistent and incremental achievement to feel more sustained. It is up to each individual and their managers to understand their capabilities and put them in the best position to succeed.