Stretch Goals: Just Don’t, Okay?

Stretch Goals: Just Don’t, Okay?

In my recent post, Team Building Makes Me Feel Dead Inside, Derek Huether mentioned “stretch goals” in one of his (outstanding) comments. The thought of stretch goals immediately set my blood to boil, and I wanted to tell all of you my thoughts on the matter.

A “stretch goal” is any goal “which seems to be unobtainable with the existing resources”. The intent behind stretch goals is to force employees to think creatively for solutions to apparently impossible problems. A worthy example is trisecting an angle with a compass and a straightedge. As you can see from the links, while no global solution has yet been found to the problem, there are a slew of creative attempts at solving the problem, many of which have met with limited success.

Diagram to illustrate angle trisection
Image via Wikipedia

Is it worthy to attempt to find a solution to such a problem? Certainly. Not only does the end solution better all of mankind and add to our collective understanding of the world; but often so does the journey towards a solution.

Should those who succeed in finding creative solutions to apparently impossible problems be rewarded for their ingenuity and initiative? Absolutely. These pioneering people have gone above and beyond what should reasonably be expected of them, and had that eureka moment after a lot of hard work that gives your organization an exceptional edge. These results are special, and should be acknowledged as such.

When dealing in purely theoretical terms about a seemingly-impossible problem that your organization wants to work on, developing reward / incentive programs for your people to work on these solutions on their own, or with a team is certainly a worthwhile venture. You pay them over and above for phenomenal results, and you gain an unfair advantage for your company. Everybody wins.

However, there’s a big difference between presenting a seemingly impossible problem, and setting impossible expectations.

Such is the case with setting specific “stretch goals” for your people and expecting them to find a solution as part of their everyday job. As so many companies appear to be doing, they are knowingly setting their people up to fail in the name of creativity. I find this offensive, because it attempts to put a pretty face on quite honestly, reprehensible behaviour.

I knew a manager once who set up a performance measurement regarding customer satisfaction. Every three months customer satisfaction was measured on a 4 point scale, so possible discrete values were: 0%, 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% satisfied. The manager decided for his employees to pass the measurement, customers would have to be 80% satisfied with the work. Since 80% is not a valid point on the satisfaction scale, getting 3 out of 4 wouldn’t cut it. If the customer wasn’t 100% satisfied, the employee failed. Employees were expected to find creative solutions to this problem.

More often than not, of course, the employees couldn’t find an effective solution (short of begging the customer to give them a 4, which was explicitly forbidden), the customers would find something small wrong, and dock them. Employees walked away from their reviews being told “you’re a failure”.

So, yah, way to make your people feel good about their work.

My question to managers who believe in setting impossible expectations of their people is: who in the organization benefits if the expectations aren’t met? It’s certainly not your staff. They get to walk away feeling like they’re worthless. That’s if they don’t actively hate you already. Do you benefit? Well, I’m guessing not since you didn’t actually get anything except a bunch of failures on your hands, and probably more than one or two cases of stress leave. In fact, the only way anyone can benefit at all, is if those impossible expectations were met, but the odds generally don’t look too great. The problem was intended to be impossible to solve after all.

Look. Your people don’t need that crap. You don’t need that crap. I understand you want to encourage your people to achieve and do great things. There are other ways to go about that. Set your people up to succeed! That’s a shocking concept, I know, but it works! Set reasonable goals for your people, and if they overachieve, reward them. If they meet your expectations, then they’ve done well too.

It’s fine and good to reward the exceptional, and to go out of your way to encourage innovation. But innovation doesn’t happen every day. It happens over time, through hard work, exposure, and yes, a lot of accidents. Expecting something fabulous every day is unrealistic, sets your people up for failure, and ultimately, sets you up for failure too. After all, you’re the one at the helm.

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Kicking the Can:

So I’ve just gone off the deep end about why I think stretch goals are a big mistake and full of abuse potential. Am I wrong? Should companies be actively expecting their people to solve impossible problems as part of their day-to-day work? Chime in and tell the community here what you think! And remember, sharing is sexy!

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • PatrickRichard


    I must disagree with you on stretch goals. I guess this means war between us; I’ll meet you tomorrow at dawn in the parking lot of your choice… ;-|

    I do see your point about the potential for some team members feeling setup for failure when they are given a stretch goal but I believe it is all in the way the goal is presented and used. Stretch goals are useful to help avoid falling into a rut; forever doing things in a particular way without questioning whether there is a better way. Stretch goals are important motivation tools for over achievers; a good example is PhD research where a positive outcome is not a given upon starting the process.

    I think the most important thing to remember when issuing a stretch goal is that there can be no retribution for failing. If a manager cannot stomach this then he should not issue a stretch goal.

    By the way, the “war between us” thing can be avoided. As the offended party I demand a large Second Cup Latte…

    Patrick Richard ing., PMP

  • mindfulpm

    Hi Geoff,

    I think the use of stretch goals is dependent entirely on the culture that you have developed within your project team. If the team is mature, motivated and, most importantly, if they trust you and each other, I think you can positively influence the team dynamic with stretch goals. But, and this is a big but, it cannot be at the expense of core goals, and any goal that you set for your team must provide some kind of glimmer of achievability.

    In the real world, teams change from one project to the next, and the job of establishing and maintaining trust is difficult enough that I personally would rather spend my time on that than on trying to extract something more from my team than the goals already set.

  • Geoff,

    Once again you've hit the nail on the head. The problem with “stretch” goals is that many organizations use them to push people into working late hours to achieve what would otherwise be considered unlikely at best, or impossible at the worst. “Stretch” goals typically involve arbitrary deadlines or unrealistic expectations that do nothing but hurt morale and distract the project team.

    Saying that, I am totally behind striving for excellence, but when compensation and bonus plans are dependent upon heroic efforts day in and day out—there's a problem. We should also consider that working lots of overtime or long hours trying to accomplish supposed “stretch” goals is also one of the tangible warning signs that a project is in trouble. It leads to poor employee health resulting from too much caffeine, too many late nights, and too much junk food. Not to mention a lot of extra mistakes.

    Geoff, I must agree. I don't think companies should expect their people to solve impossible problems as part of their day-to-day work.

  • The great part about blogging is we don't have to agree! 🙂

    I would definitely agree with you that if stretch goals are to have any function, the manager who sets those goals needs to present and use them properly. I would take it a step further and suggest that said manager really needs to know what he's doing because I see too narrow a margin for ruining morale among staff. I like what you say about “no retribution for failing”, but I think that's too passive. Many people are their own worst critics, and see failure as failure. If his people don't meet the stretch goals, the manager needs to actively ensure they understand a fail is acceptable (as opposed to just not saying anything and letting the employee beat himself up about it).

    But if failure is acceptable, the purpose behind the goal is defeated, as employees may or may not work hard at solving the problem (knowing that they don't really have to). You could not tell your people that, of course, but that risks employee anger afterwards.

    I'm interested in your example of “PhD research where a positive outcome is not a given upon starting the process”. Can you elaborate?

    PS: You're ex-military, I believe. Any fight would be no contest, so I'll make the first move by curling into a fetal position in the parking lot and whimpering incoherently. 🙂 I better make good on that coffee! 😀

    PPS: Thanks for another fabulous comment, Patrick!

  • Thanks very much for this, my friend! 🙂 I think you're 100% when you say that culture is a key factor in successfully applying stretch goals. If trust is there, and staff know they won't be penalized in any way, they may absolutely rise to the challenge implicit in a stretch goal.

    The big assumption there, is that sufficient time has passed to build an appropriate level of trust between the manager and his people. A new manager walking into an organization and setting stretch goals, for example, I think would be a recipe for disaster.

    I hope you don't mind…I took the liberty of editing your comment so your second paragraph was bolded, because I think it's an excellent point that people reading should take note of.

    Cheers and thanks for another great comment!

  • Ty! I love your comments here. They always make me feel vindicated! LOL One day I really need to write something you totally disagree with and you can totally rip the wind out of my sails! 😀

    I think you're absolutely right of course. In a project setting with so many moving parts adding impossible goals to the mix is just asking for trouble. I had only considered the emotional impacts of failing to meet stretch goals, but the effort of trying to achieve stretch goals is also important, particularly if it results in excessive overtime and poor health.

    Sadly, there's a lot of managers out there who don't really care about such things, which is pretty myopic in my opinion, because of the long term impacts such apathy brings.

  • PatrickRichard


    You state “If his people don't meet the stretch goals, the manager needs to actively ensure they understand a fail is acceptable”; that is actually what I meant when I wrote that there cannot be retribution for failure. This MUST be stated unequivocally and understood at the time the goal is discussed.

    Regarding PhD or other research studies, the act of advancing knowledge is “theoretically” more important than reaching the hoped for end point. For example, testing a particular molecule’s efficacy against a disease and finding out that it doesn’t work is “theoretically” as good as finding it is. Of course you mileage may vary.

    So you see that we don’t disagree that much but that doesn’t mean I’m not looking to gouge a free coffee out of you… 🙂

    Thanks for a great read,

  • Sounds like I'm forking over for a Tim Horton's. Oops…I mean Second Cup. 😀

  • Geoff, If you'd like, I can give you a list of all the topics you could discuss that I would probably disagree with. Unfortunately, you must be pretty smart, because we agree most of the time.

    I file most “stretch” goals with unrealistic time-lines, arbitrary deadlines, and poorly communicated expectations. None of them contribute to project success and all of them demean the workforce and hurt morale.

  • Great post Geoff. The other thing about stretch goals is that depending on the context, they can get ALL the focus. Now you've got people taking shortcuts on quality or other important work, just because YOU decided one aspect of their work was more important than anything else.

    Ever managed in a call center? The “metric of the month club” is a famous way of setting stretch goals for everyone on whatever some executive thinks is important right now. The approach you suggest about setting achievable goals and setting your people up for success is more conducive to balanced, healthy and sustainable kaizen.

    Josh Nankivel

  • WOOOT! Thanks very much for the comment, Josh! I've not managed a call center, but I'm very familiar with the “metric of the month club”. It happens a lot. The thing with metrics is, if they're to be effective, they need to be measured consistently over the long term. Swapping one out for another every month is completely pointless, and as you say, results in too much attention focused away from important things like quality.

    Sustainable, consistent, realistic. Those are words I'd associate with good metrics.

    Cheers, my friend!

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