Stretch targets – managing expectations

Setting stretch targets is a classic way of energizing a team, challenging them to think differently, to innovate and pull together.

The key thing to realize as a leader is that stretch targets are sometimes missed because they are impossible under the circumstances.

When that stretch target is externally imposed and genuinely immovable, people almost invariably respond to the best of their ability, and perform to their limit (and sometimes beyond).

When the stretch target is set internally, there are 2 scenarios:

  1. Firstly, that hitting the target is realistically achievable – in this situation, people tend to react as well as the externally set target, working hard together to deliver the result.
  2. The second scenario is that the target is NOT realistically achievable! This is frequently not obvious at first, so everyone sets off full of good intentions, aiming for the target. After a while, as the situation becomes progressively clearer, the uncertainties around the plan start to resolve, and timelines start to stretch out as the true scope of the work required is revealed.

When it becomes a probability that the stretch target will not be hit, what follows is usually very close to the “five stages of grief” described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book “On Death and Dying”, from working with terminally ill patients.

When a person is faced with the reality of their impending death, he/she will experience a series of emotional “stages”: denial; anger; bargaining; depression and acceptance (in no specific sequence).

We see these in leaders when their stretch targets will not be met.

The denial, anger and depression responses are destructive to the organization – for a leader to display these for more than a few moments is unprofessional.

  • Denial – this undermines the confidence of the team as their professional views are rejected and disparaged. It creates a break between the leader and the team members and is strongly demotivating
  • Anger – If the leader was genuinely involved, there would be no surprise and no anger, so it is proof of a hands-off management style
  • Depression – powerfully demotivating for the team, causing delays before contingency planning can start

Bargaining, if it drives the consideration of wider options and flexing the target, is laudable, but bargaining is not just the dogmatic repetition that the target must be hit.

Acceptance is vital – this allows full-hearted focussing on contingency planning and making the best of the situation as early as possible, rather than steaming full-tilt into the iceberg.

I always approach stretch targets through putting risk management as the primary management tool, with the project plan very much in second place. The project plan (in Gantt format) makes it look as though timescales and the scope of work is known, when often it isn’t – until enough work has been done to create a baseline plan, presenting a Gantt chart gives a false sense of security about the stretch target being hit.

Managing by risk foremost makes these uncertainties explicit. Some people don’t like this, but when they buy into it, it delivers much better results.

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