Walking The Razor’s Edge

Stretch goals. Managers love them. They love to talk about them, they rhapsodize their mythical qualities of motivation and they set them with wild abandon. Sadly, however, managers for the most part have absolutely no idea whatsoever how stretch goals actually work. It is also a fairly safe claim that managers don’t understand why they work, and when they completely fall apart. This in no way seems to stop managers from attempting to set them, however.

The biggest challenge in defining stretch goals is expressed by the essential question, “how much stretch is stretch?” In other words, how much pressure is motivating, and when does it start to be de-motivating? As with so many things in life, the answer to this is “it depends.” The essential construct of this particular “it depends” is expressed by what is known as the Yerkes-Dodson law. The essence of this construct is that performance increases as mental arousal increases, but only up to a point. After that optimal level, further increases in arousal result in declining performance. We would be calling that arousal “stress.”

Anyone that has flirted with deadlines has experienced the Yerkes-Dodson law. Too far away, and there is no motivation to do anything. Wait until the night before, mind you, and the pressure becomes overwhelming, motivation craters and you discover that the pit of despair smells a lot like the bottom of a coffee pot at 3 a.m. We find a little bit of deadline pressure stimulating, but too much is just overwhelming.

Some time ago, I came across a reference to stretch goals and deadline pressure. I sadly have no recollection of where this little snippet of information appeared, although I have referenced it repeatedly since (and if anyone can reunite me with the source material, I will be eternally grateful).

The essence of what I did find was that what was considered a motivating, stretch goal for deadline pressure was 95%; anything more was considered crippling. That’s a fascinating number; what it essential translates into is that a project that is expected to take 20 weeks to complete would consider a stretch deadline to be no shorter than 19 weeks. Anything else, and the practical consequence would be for the deadline to be seen as unattainable.

Stretch goals aren’t only expressed by time and deadlines, of course. They may be focussed on cost reductions, budget savings, profitability targets, productivity levels, sales increases or customer retention objectives. Regardless of what their actual focus is, though, there will be a goal that is stretching but motivating, and anything beyond that will be crushing and debilitating.

This is not new information. Yerkes and Dodson wrote the paper publishing their work in 1908. We’ve arguably had more than a century to figure this out, and yet we persist in setting unreasonable goals and struggling with the failure of individuals and teams to attain them. All of which can be filed under the heading, “deliberate mis-application of wishful thinking.”

In the last century, we have learned more about stretch goals (even as we have failed to take on and apply these learnings in a meaningful way) For starters, stretch goals tend to work best on well-structured tasks, where there is order and clarity and understanding of how to do the work. That’s delightfully helpful, in that clarity provides guidance on where and how we might make specific improvements. Despite this, the overwhelming tendency is to set stretch goals in situations where we are facing complexity, uncertainty and challenge. In situations where creativity, perspective and critical thought are required, we almost knowingly create the circumstances where they are least likely to appear.

Those organizations best suited to the use of stretch goals are those that are already successful. This has two separate but related drivers, one psychological and the other practical. Organizations experiencing success bring with them the confidence that comes from already performing well. Rather than coming from behind, they are starting ahead of the curve. The practical dimension is that organizations best able to reach stretch goals are those that have spare resource capacity to investigate, experiment and play. They enjoy not just the freedom of exercising creative energy, but the flexibility and capacity to do so.

Stretch goals are in no way guaranteed to be attainable goals. While implicit in their definition, this gets overlooked repeatedly when they are applied. Probability of success is diminished, and likely only attained by a few. Attempting to realize stretch goals encourages greater risk taking, which increases the likelihood of failure (which is fine if you can afford it; perilous if you can’t). And while they are motivated in limited and finite degrees, stretch goals spread thinly result in demotivation and discouragement. The result is goal abandonment, attempts to re-negotiate what is attainable or managing perceptions of current performance as “good enough.”

It’s important to recognize that the challenges of stretch goals and their consequences don’t just show up organizationally. The same dynamics that occur in our organizations happily find performance space in our brains. We take on stretch goals for ourselves, and we are then subject to the exact same consequences in how they play out.

I was confronted with this reality just last week, as the ambitions of what I wanted to accomplish confronted headlong with my inability to attain them. The week started with what should have been a reasonably manageable workload. The big moving parts involved a large client deliverable I was working to complete, a recalcitrant computer in need of reinstallation and planning for a new project just getting underway.

Perceptions of attainability progressively diminished as the week slid on and progress failed to materialize. My original intent had been to go into the weekend (a long weekend celebrating Thanksgiving here in Canada) with a clear conscience and a completed to-do list. A hoped for day of focus on Friday to wrap it all up failed to come even close to that outcome. Instead, I was bedevilled by technical gremlins that impacted my ability to complete both the deliverable and the computer reinstall.

The consequences of this are relatively predictable. To say I was an unhappy camper would be a vast understatement. I was entering the weekend not where I wanted to be. I was grumpy, cranky and frustrated, which are not the emotions most frequently associated with happy holiday experiences. The work that I wanted done was sliding into the next week, alongside the other plans and commitments already in place.

While all of this might be unfortunate, it is also largely artificial. The originator of the goal was me. The consequences of not realizing the goal (moods notwithstanding) were not significant. There was zero external awareness that Friday was a deadline, and no objective constraint that said the work couldn’t continue to stretch into this week. No clients were clamouring for the deliverable to be complete. The only person using the computer was me. The work could be delayed without impacting anyone else. It was simply not what I had hoped for myself.

What this also highlights is a slight variation in how the Yerkes-Dodson law exists in reality. Remember, what it says is that there is an optimal level of arousal, beyond which performance quickly craters. In normal circumstances, I would have simply rolled with my week. I have had deliverables looming ahead of many long weekends. There have been a plethora of circumstances where I’ve gone into the weekend with work undone. Sometimes it gets done on Saturday or Sunday, and many other times it’s still waiting for me the following week. This isn’t exactly a new experience for me.

My reaction, however, was disproportionate. And I’m seeing a lot of that lately. We are still in the middle of a pandemic. There is a lot of frustration and anxiety and uncertainty in the world. All of us are starting the day with a base load of stress that is higher than normal. Anything else that we experience over the day is simply additive. We are already stretched closer to our limit, so our tolerance for further stretch is diminished significantly.

The argument has been made many times that this is a great opportunity to tackle projects and pursue opportunities that in normal times have eluded us. Many of us have had ambitions to learn new skills, work through our reading piles, cook new recipes or build new products. Many of us have also confronted headlong the reality that doing that is hard. We have different challenges and pressures right now. Family commitments, work obligations and our own personal needs are all very different. Attending to them is complicated. We are in an environment where everything frequently feels harder to get done. Adding new obligations and expectations simply builds on that base.

That brings us to a hard and uncomfortable truth: the qualities that make stretch work for organizations are also the ones that work for people. Those most able to take on stretch goals are those of us already experiencing success, and have the psychological boost to confidence that results. Stretch is also going to feel more manageable where there are slack resources and spare cycles; those who have the luxury of time, space and money required to tackle those long put-off projects. For everyone else, stretch is going to be more than a little challenging.

Not all of us have the luxury of confidence and capacity right now. Many were walking the razor’s edge already, before pandemics, politics and propaganda added to our collective cognitive load. What was comfortable and manageable before is now going to feel stretch. And what was stretch runs the risk of heading into severe overwhelm. All of this is normal, it is human, it is understandable and it is to be expected. It is okay to stop and breathe. It is acceptable to step back and take stock. And it is entirely reasonable to let what you hoped for this week to slide into next week. Or the week after.

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to those around you. Commit to what you can do, but be okay with what you can’t do. You’ve got this. We’ll all get through this. It’s just going to be a bit of a stretch to make happen.

3 Comments to “Walking The Razor’s Edge”

  1. Brian Cohn says:

    Great article. I’ve often wondered about the impact of stretch goals and had not previously seen a framework for thinking about when they will work. I especially like the guidance that the right range for stretch is around 5%, not 20-50% as I commonly see and the idea that stretch goals are more likely to be effective in Common to Complicated circumstances (Cynefin framework) than Complex or Chaos.

    You also raise a good point that we should not punish ourselves or others for not hitting stretch goals and understanding that if we take risks in an attempt to meet stretch goals we likely put our ability to meet a non-stretch goal at risk – and we need to be OK with that.

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Thanks, Brian. Glad you enjoyed it.

      The irony of stretch goals is that they should encourage risk taking, promote search for effective solutions and encourage creativity. The reality is that they are often used as limits and constraints, cutting off search and inhibiting creativity.

      Bottom line, the more you stretch, the more that failure is a possibility. Success is far less certain. And yes, that needs to be okay. Personally and organizationally.

      Appreciate the feebdack. Take care and stay safe.


  2. Michael Hilbert says:

    I had never heard of this term or the consequences of exceeding the limits. I am sure that I have felt this in the past however, when a deadline was pushed to an unreasonable timeframe. I believe that I see the results of stretch more on myself than my organization. I need order and structure and when the plan or schedule appears that it will not turn out the way I intended, it becomes very troubling and difficult for me. Thanks for the reminder that some slippage is OK. That’s what tomorrow is for.


Leave a Comment