How Stretch Goals Kill Engagement


Stretch goals are great, aren’t they?  Don’t just do enough to get by, do something great!  Aim high!  Change the world!  Be the ball, Danny!

I’m a fan of great work.  I’m a fan of goals, metrics, measurable outcomes and continuous improvement.  But I’ve come to believe that stretch goals might be the biggest threat to employee engagement we inflict on ourselves.  The flash of insight came to me while running.  OK, jogging.  OK, OK, plodding.  But when you lace up, you should have a goal in mind.  How far are you going and/or how fast you are going to move.  So let’s say that you set a goal to do a mile, regardless of time.  Specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, time-bound.  Good goal.

Once you get started you might feel pretty good and think, “A mile isn’t enough!  I’m going to do a 5k today! I feel great!”  Good for you.  Then you get through the first mile and think, “Did I say 5k?  Um…maybe not.  But I can do more than a mile, so let’s keep going!”  (By the way, your personal distances may vary here,but you get the idea.)  So let’s then say you double your planned output and put in a good solid two miles.

How do you feel at the end of that run?  You should feel elated, right?  You ran twice as far as you thought you would.  That’s worthy of a high five and a butt slap, no matter how far you planned to go in the first place.  Except….except there’s a little voice in your head that says, “Sure, but you didn’t do that 5k, did you?”

Now how do you feel?  Like you doubled your planned output, or like you failed to reach a goal?

Stretch goals can be a horrible demotivater if you aren’t careful.  By putting a blue sky target out there, you immediately introduce the very real chance of failure.  In fact, some people say that if you reach your stretch goal, it wasn’t high enough. So the odds of you feeling good about yourself at the end of the day are not just low, they are low by design.

It’s good to have goals.  Really.  But they should mean something.  They should be important to the business, and they should give you a sense of direction.  But adding a stretch goal that you know won’t be hit is no way to treat your employees.  Or yourself.

Stretch Goals

For those who have been through any kind of strategic planning, personal development planning, project planning or party planning, you have certainly had to set a goal.  And usually with goals come a nebulous idea of “stretch” goals.  Stretch goals are intentionally hard to reach, maybe even impossible.  But some people aren’t comfortable with putting down a goal that can’t be reached.  That’s understandable.  Why set yourself up for failure?  Maybe there should be goals, big goals and then stretch goals.  But I think a better solution is to perhaps define what a stretch goals really is, and what it should represent.

In Blue Ocean Strategy (one of my favorite business books), there is a great review of the business transformation of Swatch watches.  They took a whole new approach to their industry, starting with the idea of their price point first, then working backward through their process to get to profit.  It’s a great story, and a great example of stretch.  If you put a 75% reduction of production costs in the strategic plan, you’d have some nervous people in the room.  And they did.  Then they made it happen.  Go read about it.  I’ll wait here.

When I think stretch goals, I think of stories like that.  Incredible tales of what Jim Collins would call a BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal) and the teams who reach them.  His epic Good to Great is full of them.  Go read that one as well.  There are a lot of stories between those two books, many of them about teams that did what looked impossible.

Why do I bring it up?  Because when I think of stretch goals, I think of these stories.  And the lesson is this:

If you reach your stretch goals, someone will write a book about it.

Think your goals aren’t worthy of being preserved as lessons to future leaders?  Then maybe they aren’t really stretch.  Maybe they are just big goals.  Nothing wrong with that.  We should all have big goals.  But you might want to scribble down a stretch goal or two as well.  You don’t even have to tell anyone about it.  Just know they exist.  Because if you don’t, you’ll never reach them.

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