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Should Stretch Goals be Achievable? October 25, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, International management, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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In the early 90s our division went through a week-long training session to learn some basic process improvement techniques. As part of the program we were divided into teams of 6-8 people and given a simulation exercise based on a bare-bones “order fulfillment” process. We were instructed to run the process as a team several times as quickly as possible and record our average time. When all the teams reconvened we reported back to the instructor and discovered that everyone’s average time was between 3 and 4 minutes, and no one had achieved better than 2:50.

The instructor wrote the times on the whiteboard, then turned to the class and told us our performance was pathetic. He revealed that our imaginary competition had achieved an average process time of 20 seconds. If we couldn’t at least meet that benchmark level of performance, we would lose our imaginary customers and go out of business.

Everyone was stunned. No one could imagine how the process could be completed more quickly. I don’t remember if it was the instructor or one of the students, but someone suggested throwing out the script and changing the process completely, removing unnecessary steps and focusing on speed. Of course that was the point of the whole exercise. We achieved the 20 second goal, and I think we even managed to get down to 10 seconds.

I remembered that story the other day when I read a caution about setting aggressive goals for a team. The question is whether “crazy-high” goals are demoralizing because they’re impossible to reach, or whether they’re useful in getting people to think outside the box. Besides, who can say whether or not a goal is actually achievable?

Someone once told me that the metaphor is a rubber band. If you stretch the rubber band you can generate a lot of potential energy that can drive the organization to achieve unexpected things. On the other hand, if you stretch the rubber band too far it will break and there will be no gain.

I think it’s good for an organization to have aggressive goals that may seem just out of reach. It keeps people motivated and focused, and it can prevent them from becoming complacent. At the same time there should also be some kind of market advantage or competitive advantage or financial advantage associated with achieving those goals, otherwise this is just manipulation or sadism. I’m not sure it even matters whether or not the goal is ever achieved. Progress toward the goal can still be recognized and celebrated because it represents a finite improvement that supports business objectives. However, the real breakthroughs won’t come from incremental improvements to meet an easy goal.

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