From the February 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

Could you double productivity in your business or leapfrog over competitors? Think these are just dreams? Not so fast. Stretch goals can make the impossible happen--"that's the formula for turning fantasy into fact," says Jeff Blackman, a management consultant in Chicago and author of Peak Your Profits (Career Press). "When President Kennedy said we'd have a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, many people laughed. But it happened, and that shows us exactly what a stretch goal can accomplish."

Doubling your employees' productivity isn't easy. But is it harder than landing a man on the moon and bringing him back alive? "You'll never know how great your people can be if you start off telling yourself to be realistic in setting a goal," says Bill Roche, an executive coach in Silver Spring, Maryland. "My advice: Start off very big when setting a stretch goal. Even when the goal isn't achieved, you've focused the attention of your people on how great you want to become."

Plentiful research emphasizes the value of setting huge goals, says Deborah Crown, a professor at the University of Alabama's College of Commerce and Business Administration in Tuscaloosa. "For a real stretch goal, you want to set it at the 10 percent difficulty level--meaning that one person in 10 can be expected to accomplish it," says Crown. "Research says this is the ideal difficulty level when you want to get people initiating, working harder and squarely directing their efforts at achieving goals."

Why so stiff a challenge? "That difficulty level means the goal is tough--but it can still be achieved. It will stretch people," says Crown. Better still, she adds, you can bet that nearly 90 percent of your workers will come through. "How can that be? The goal itself is motivating. It gets people to give that extra effort and to keep on pushing."

To achieve results, you've got to properly define the goal--and that's not always easy. Vague goals are worthless. For instance, "Work harder!" isn't a goal that motivates anybody. But "increase productivity by
12 percent within three weeks"--that is a clear, useful goal. "Goals need to be both specific and quantifiable," says Don Vlcek, a former Domino's Pizza vice president who is now a business consultant and author of The Domino Effect (Business One Irwin).

But a quantifiable goal isn't enough. A valid stretch goal also needs to have measures that identify progress toward it. "Any long-term goal has to be broken down into monthly, even weekly steps along the way," says Crown. "Workers are much less likely to slack off when forward motion is continually monitored."

"You need a continuing stream of feedback whenever you are really stretching," agrees Charles Garfield, an Oakland, California, speaker and author of Peak Performance (Warner Books). "The Apollo moon flight was off-course 90 percent of the time between here and the moon," recalls Garfield, who worked at NASA on the Apollo mission. "But Apollo had feedback mechanisms that allowed it to make rapid course corrections."

Will any stretch goal suffice? For the most part, yes, but there is one thing to avoid: "A goal that is absolutely unattainable will frustrate and demoralize workers and can lead to internal squabbling about who's to blame for the failure," warns Crown. Stretch your workers, in other words, but don't break them.

Heart And Goal

By sidestepping the pitfalls, will success be yours when you set a stretch goal? Results can virtually be guaranteed, but only if "you have first won the hearts and minds of your workers. When they are on board with the goal--they agree that it is important and can be done--you really will get dramatic improvement," vows Roche.

How to win this commitment? Level with your people about why the goal is critical. Tell your workers about big gains made by competitors, the more stringent demands imposed by customers, or whatever it is that necessitates a jump forward. Make the case clearly, and your employees will get the message that this goal is crucial--and they will join the pursuit.

What if your team still falls short? The better question is: How close did they come? If you've set a stretch goal that's way out there and some team members fall a bit short, this is no time for long faces. They all have triumphed, even if they didn't go the full distance.

Then, too, "ask yourself why they came up short," says Crown. "Did environmental factors hinder their efforts? Did the behaviors of other employees impede their progress? Were the goals clearly communicated in the first place?" She suggests using these occasions as opportunities to conduct a post-mortem analysis that avoids blame and instead searches for ways to improve so that next time, the goal is achieved.

If they have triumphed, however, "incentives are called for," says Vlcek. "Incentives don't have to be expensive, but you want to acknowledge the workers' terrific efforts." With what? At Domino's, Vlcek sat in on many meetings of franchise operators with store employees and, he says, "I saw lots and lots of $25 to $50 incentives passed out to workers who achieved stretch goals. A gift certificate for dinner for two at a fancy restaurant can be a big treat. Little incentives really can fire up employees."

When the party's over, should you announce a new, bigger stretch goal? First, know the danger: Do this, and it's easy for workers to see themselves as nothing more than cogs in a wheel spun by a never-satisfied management. Big auto makers found themselves viewed in that light a few years ago, and the upshot was worker slowdowns, coupled, in a few cases, with intentional sabotage of cars on the assembly line. "You can easily create a `management keeps doing this to us' attitude among your workers," warns Crown.

But, she adds, in the right, deft management hands, "you can keep ratcheting up stretch goals. In an organization where there's lots of communication, plenty of openness and trust, you can do it--if you can persuade the workers there are good business reasons for the new goals."

"Set big goals, and you can really bring your workers to life. They'll surprise you," says Roche. "As long as you have their hearts and minds, stretch goals can keep working magic."

Robert McGarvey writes on business psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or ideas, e-mail rjmcgarvey@aol.com.

Contact Sources

Jeff Blackman, c/o Blackman & Associates, (847) 998-0688, fax: (847) 998-0675;

Bill Roche, (301) 585-6173, Bill@TopResults.com;

Don Vlcek, c/o Don Vlcek & Associates, (800) 459-0438, rjmcgarvey@aol.com.