I just read an article from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) by Ron Ashkenas titled “Don’t Dismiss Stretch Goals.” He was responding to a fellow blogger at HBR who had written that “stretch goals can be demotivating.” I have written extensively about this subject and agree with the blogger, Daniel Markovitz. In my book OOPs, I call stretch goals a waste of time and money. I am happy to see that people are beginning to understand some of the problems associated with them. What Ashkenas suggests is not to abandon long-range stretch but add short-range stretches as a complement. As he says, “These small stretches need to force people out of their comfort zones to try new approaches, ideas and ways of working in 100 days or less.”
One of my problems with such an approach is that anytime you force anyone to do anything, you will get less than what he or she is capable of doing. What is motivating about a goal is not the goal but the history one has with achieving or not achieving a goal. If people have been punished for not reaching a goal, they don’t like them and try to find ways to avoid having them. If they have a history of accomplishment and celebrations of them, they like goals and will set them for themselves even if others don’t.
In the early part of my career, my wife worked processing income tax returns as a temporary employee of the IRS. Since her boss did not set goals for the employees, she set them for herself, and one of the first conversations at the dinner table each night was how many returns she processed that day. She even graphed her performance and showed it to her supervisor, who had no real interest in it. (Is there any wonder why she only worked there one tax season?) As an accomplished musician, she has a long history of reinforcement for her musical work, and achieving goals was motivating to her.
In one sense all goals are stretches in that they represent some form of progress – either a higher level of performance or a more consistent one. The issue is not to make people stretch but to get them to do it willingly. Contrary to popular opinion, easy goals are the best ones simply because they are most likely to lead to positive reinforcement. Since positive reinforcement accelerates responding, small goals turn out to be the quickest way to reach long-term goals. Most people who fail in business or in personal life do so because they set goals that are too difficult to reach, causing them to abandon them quickly. Most people don’t even set them personally (think New Year’s resolutions) because they are rarely successful. One-hundred days, as Ashkenas suggests, is clearly too long for a person or group to work to achieve a goal. Quick successes are needed — quick as in every day.
Goals properly set and managed are powerful tools to motivate people to achieve goals that they would never believe possible. By way of example, in a 700-employee distribution center, employees reached an eight-week goal in one week. As poorly done as stretch goals are, which is frequent, they are as demotivating as a trip to the dentist.