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Why Stretch Goals Aren’t Effective

I recently saw two separate and contradictory articles about goals. The first suggested that goal setting was an artifact of management by objective and was no longer necessary in today’s business world. The other encouraged leaders to set “stretch goals” for their teams; goals for which the leader is willing to accept failure, knowing the goal is a little beyond the team’s abilities. Though the two articles seem to argue for and against goal setting, they actually both demonstrate a misunderstanding of the purpose of effective goals.

Setting goals is not just an artifact of management by objective, but a vital leadership responsibility. Properly crafted goals which are directly related to the mission move the company or team towards accomplishing that mission. Goals that are not directly tied to the mission are probably superfluous – or required by compliance mandates or government directives. Goals may be short-term, or may require a long time to accomplish. They keep everyone focused and headed in the same direction and are a tool for leaders to ensure each team member understands his or her importance to mission accomplishment. That increases engagement.

One of the most important aspects of a good goal is that it must be achievable. That doesn’t mean it has to be easy; it shouldn’t be easy, but it must be within the team’s ability. That’s the problem with “stretch goals” which are often goals that are beyond the team’s abilities. The philosophy is that by “stretching” to reach the goal, the team will improve, even if they don’t actually accomplish the goal.

The problem is, when the team knows the goal is unreachable, they most likely will not expend a lot of time and energy on that goal. Worse, an unreachable goal tends to demoralize a highly motivated team.

Of course, goals should not just focus on maintaining the status quo but should challenge the team. That sounds like stretching the team, doesn’t it? Yes, and goals should stretch the team, but, giving the team a goal but indicating it’s probably beyond reasonable expectations, gives them no real incentive to stretch.

Every goal should challenge the team and move it forward. But, every goal should also be clearly achievable. It may be difficult, it may take a long time, it may move the team out of its comfort zone, but it’s reasonable to expect that it can be done and will lead towards mission accomplishment.

Effective goal setting means clearly defining the team’s mission, then setting realistic goals that will challenge the team, make them better, and move them forward towards accomplishing that mission.

Every goal should stretch the team.


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