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.
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”.
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!