Above And Beyond

Set higher goals for your employees--and they'll excel.

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.

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This article was originally published in the February 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Above And Beyond.

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