You’re not likely to achieve great things by setting mediocre goals. If you want to make it big, you have to think big.
But that doesn’t mean setting impossibly high goals untethered from reality. Instead, you want to identify those areas where you can deliver a major impact but only by moving significantly outside of your comfort zone.
We call those stretch goals, and they can be incredibly empowering when embedded inside a broader organizational framework for strategic growth and performance.
What Is a Stretch Goal?
Stretch goals are aspirational. They’re deliberately ambitious and challenging. By their nature, they are difficult to achieve through ordinary measures, and there’s a good chance you’ll fall short in trying to achieve them.
In this way, they are different from your committed goals, which must be completed within a specific time frame to maintain the status quo.
Former Alphabet CEO Larry Page famously refers to stretch goals as “moonshots” because setting these wildly ambitious goals can feel like reaching for the moon. It’s the difference between performing 10% better and performing 10 times better.
Stretch goals are often long-term goals, moving beyond the quarterly planning that drives most business operations. Jim Collins famously coined the term BHAG (“big hairy audacious goal”) to describe the kinds of stretch goals that could take a decade or more to achieve.
However, stretch goals aren’t just for established global enterprises and well-funded startups. Organizations of all sizes, as well as smaller teams and individuals, can set stretch goals.
Organizational Stretch Goals
Organizational stretch goals take the company in a new direction, corner a market or exponentially improve revenue. They’re strategic goals, set by executive leadership, that provide a clear and ambitious direction for the company’s growth.
Example: In the early 1970s, Southwest Airlines was just a tiny fleet of four airplanes that went to three destinations — and it was losing money. It would take a bold move to save the struggling airline, and Bill Franklin, the company’s vice president of ground operations, made one: He set a goal of achieving a 10-minute turnaround at the gate, unheard of at the time.
Team Stretch Goals
Team stretch goals are aligned with the organization’s stretch goals. Since stretch goals require new ways of working, teams often set stretch goals that involve pioneering and testing new processes.
Example: To achieve its stretch goal of a 10-minute turnaround time, Southwest Airlines’ flight attendants and ground crew members had to rethink everything about the way they worked as they developed a rapid-fire checklist to keep their planes in the air.
Individual Stretch Goals
Individual stretch goals should support team and organizational stretch goals. This may require changes to daily work habits, as well as the acquisition of new skills.
Example: A flight attendant could focus specifically on reducing the time needed to get everyone seated safely so the plane could promptly pull away from the gate.
How to Set Stretch Goals
Stretch goals are most effective in the context of a broader strategy.
An OKR framework can keep everyone aligned on the operational goals that must be achieved efficiently, freeing up time and creative energy for employees to stretch in the areas that have the greatest opportunity for innovation. Stretch goals can also be incorporated into OKRs to ensure they sync with the overall company strategy.
Revisit Your Mission
If you’re looking for inspiration, your company mission is a great place to start as the best stretch goals are rooted in a sense of purpose and vision.
Give yourself space to think creatively about different ways to achieve your mission under different circumstances and constraints than you operate in now. What would you do if you had unlimited resources to accomplish your mission? What if you had to start over today with nothing?
Your answers to these questions could help inspire new ways of achieving your long-term goals, as an organization, a team, or an individual.
Organizations, teams, and individuals can generally take on one stretch goal at a time, and you’ll want to time the demands they make on people appropriately to improve your odds for success.
Stretch goals are most effective following a recent win when company morale is highest, research suggests. In these situations, people are better equipped to focus on finding opportunities, rather than defending themselves from the risk that comes with change.
Allocate Sufficient Resources
Agile work methodology encourages employees to set stretch goals that constantly test new ideas and processes — knowing that many of them will fail.
Well-resourced teams account for that failure cycle and don’t penalize teams for the downtime. Because when you’re working toward a stretch goal, even major setbacks can bring benefits — enabling employees to refine their ideas and quickly move on to more successful ones.
Build Momentum Through Stretch Goals and OKRs
Companies, teams, and individuals alike can build momentum by working toward stretch goals, and an OKR framework can help you break those stretch goals into more manageable chunks that keep everyone motivated and pulling in the same direction.
It’s a powerful approach to goal setting. Pinterest scaled from a 10-person startup to a multibillion-dollar organization with 2,000+ employees by setting ambitious long-term goals and working backward. The company sets aspirational stretch goals within an OKR framework to drive employee energy in the desired direction.
After all, even if you don’t succeed, wherever you land will probably be further along than you would have been without the more ambitious goal. If you fall short, you can take what you learn from the experience and pick that goal back up the following quarter.
Giving your goals a stretch component creates the potential for both individual employees and the company to benefit exponentially, as opposed to clinging to ideas and processes that every quarter grow a little more out of date.