There is a lot to be said for getting out of your comfort zone – for giving yourself an opportunity to grow and achieve something greater than your day-to-day existence. There is a lot to be gained by embracing the concept of “stretch”.

In the workplace (and in life), pushing yourself a bit more and stretching beyond your boundaries of comfort can be terrifying – but for me, the opportunity to move beyond complacency is always worth it.

As a manager, one of the best things that you can do for your team is to incorporate stretch into the team goals. The benefits are significant, for both the individual and the organisation. However, stretch goals need to be crafted with care.

Stretch goals

Stretch goals are typically a goal that requires higher effort and sometimes higher risk. They are intentionally set above normal standards to attract greater rewards, opportunities, and experiences. Usually, stretch goals are not expected to be achieved one hundred percent. So, why would you set them then?

Well, stretch goals, particularly when set at a team level, tend breathe new life into uninspired work environments. They challenge a team to create better results. In short, by setting up stretch goals, you will create an environment that fosters more innovation and creativity.[1] In today’s competitive world, this provides significant advantage on many levels.

Stretch goals are also a great way to help hidden talent become much more visible. They tend to help teams to become more committed, and to find new ways of achieving by leveraging their available resources more creatively. They can also be a lot of fun!

The importance of skills, challenge and stretch goals

However, if you do not put the right level of effort into setting a stretch goal, this can cause a disconnect with either the team or an individual. There is an art to setting stretch goals, as well as setting the team up for success. Although the stretch may provide motivation, you need to also provide the required skills.

There is a “sweet spot” for stretch goals – and it is somewhere between the balance of challenge and the right skill set. 

In his book, “Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience”[2]Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about the importance of adjusting the level of challenge and the skills to create the right level of stretch. The right level of stretch then leads to “flow”, where you become creative, fully immersed, and productive.

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As you can see, when the challenge is too hard and the skills are too low, the result is anxiety. And when the skills are too great and the challenge is too low, the result is boredom. Neither anxiety nor boredom are a pathway to creativity.

The skill of the manager

It does take a skilled manager to set up the stretch goals effectively in the first place, as well as manage the team (and potential fallout) if they do not achieve success in their quest. Here are a few important considerations for any manager who is setting stretch goals:

  • Remember that stretch goals are different to SMART[3] goals. You need both. SMART goals are more focused on an outcome that is achievable. Stretch goals are more aligned to your organisation’s long-term vision.
  • All goals need to be clear and should be documented – this helps to clarify success when they are achieved
  • You will need a way to track progress against the goals
  • You will need to ensure that feedback mechanisms are in place – feedback is critical and should be delivered in a timely manner
  • Be clear if the perceived challenge is balanced against the skill set – is more training required?
  • You will need to provide an environment that is supportive and safe for creativity to flourish. 

The importance of the culture

For stretch goals to work, the culture needs to support innovation and creativity – and the need to sometimes fail. Without the right culture, stretch goals can be demotivating, overwhelming and unattainable.

The culture also must be managed and safe enough to stop unethical behaviour in the quest to achieve stretch goals. Having a large financial target or reward can be problematic in any culture, as it can lead to questionable decision making. Financial success should be a consequence of excellence, not the stretch goal. Outlandish financial goals are usually in tension with genuine excellence and innovation.[4] 

So, it is important to remember that stretch goals are about innovation, creativity, and human excellence – not about financial targets. Having a culture that provides the safety around those qualities that exist in all of us is critical for stretch goals to work.

When stretch goals are set properly, your team can create awesome outcomes – for the organisation, for the clients, for the community and for the team. This is what Umair Haque refers to as culture of “awesomeness”.   Haque argues that awesomeness happens when creativity is put front and centre. In his view, awesomeness evokes an emotive reaction because its fundamentally new, unexpected and significantly better.[5] That takes a culture that is prepared to be truly creative and safe. And it takes a well-articulated vision that makes everyone think big!

A final reflection

In a world where innovation has become the latest buzzword, I encourage you to keep stretching yourself and your team. Providing an environment where the challenge is in harmony with the skillset not only creates flow, but also creates creativity and fun!  As Ken Poirot, famed author of “Mentor Me” said, “True success is achieved by stretching oneself, learning to feel comfortable being uncomfortable”.[6]

Ps.  The image used is that of one of my favourite toys from the 1970s – “Stretch Armstrong”. Stretch Armstrong was a large, gel filled action figure first introduced in 1976 by Kenner. With a bit of effort, Stretch could be stretched from his original size of around 40 cm to around 1.5 m – a feat that my two brothers and I tried to master on a regular basis. Stretch went beyond the limits of what seemed possible to become so much more – and this absolutely captured our imagination.

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