Setting goals is important. Long-term plans are important too. But what about stretch goals?
Stretch goals are distant aspirations that are both extremely difficult to meet, and extremely novel within your industry. While they don’t have to appear unachievable, they often do (and sometimes actually are).
In 1972 Southwest Airlines was forced to sell one of their four aircraft in order to help pay their bills. Instead of permanently eliminating 25% of flights, they adopted a stretch goal of 10-minute turnaround times at airport gates. Other companies thought it was impossible. Southwest eventually met their goal with a race-car pit crew-inspired maintenance and refueling regimen.
This unprecedentedly efficient use of resources allowed the company to offer enhanced services with significantly reduced infrastructure costs. Southwest would become one of only a handful of American airlines to survive the tumultuous two decades following deregulation of the airline industry.
Researchers at 5 major American universities have found an interesting problem that’s inherent to the concept of a stretch goal. Their findings, published in the July 2011 issue of Academic of Management Review, show that for most firms, stretch goals are either unlikely to ever be pursued, or unlikely to ever be achieved.
In high performance companies, there’s very little motivation to pursue stretch goals. Staff and management are prone to accepting the status quo, and are reluctant to do anything that might present risk or disrupt productivity.
In low performance companies, stretch goals are created in a desperate attempt to get out of the red. Unfortunately for these companies, meeting stretch goals takes time, money, and personnel. Sacrificing core functions to pursue long-term dreams is not a realistic plan for companies without a financial buffer. The benefits of a stretch goal might not be realized for years after the pursuit begins, and by then the company is in financial ruin.
Stretch goals don’t have to be company-wide. Individual staff, or cooperative teams, can come up with their own long-term aspirations. In companies with resources to spare, management and HR should make sure that staff have help developing their long-term plans, and access to the resources that will allow them to succeed.
Big aspirations often present big risks. Before you set stretch goals, ask yourself if you can afford to fail. If you can’t, consider some more modest strategic improvements.
“Success doesn’t come to you; You go to it.”
— Marva Collins
Source: Sitkin et. al. (2011). “The paradox of stretch goals: organizations in pursuit of the seemingly impossible.” Academy of Management Review 36(3). 544–566.