What Are Stretch Goals and How to Set Them?

stretch goals

Stretch goals have sparked much interest of late, inspiring business owners and solopreneurs to think outside the box and take more significant risks. As the name suggests, stretch goals are goals that inspire us to look at the bigger picture and stretch beyond our comfort zones. These goals are big and naturally entail a great deal of risk. However, the payoff can be huge within the right environment and when enough resources are available to withstand any setbacks. 

As the entrepreneur and cosmetics mogul, Mari Kay Ash once said: “a good goal is like a strenuous exercise. It makes you stretch. Goals should be slightly out of reach to be of maximum value.”

While every business and entrepreneur should ideally strive for bigger things, not every company will be in the position to set these goals immediately. It is indeed a process, and sometimes these larger goals are most effective when smaller, more manageable goals are developed as part of the bigger picture. 

Here we explore stretch goals in greater detail and offer some concrete tips about setting them and studying when it’s the best time to set them. 

stretch goals

What is a stretch goal?

Stretch goals are those big, dream-like goals that might initially seem somewhat impossible. While they stay slow and steady wins the race, sometimes significant risks can pay off. In his book Smarter Faster Better, journalist – and Pulitzer Prize winner – Charles Duhigg shares the following when it comes to setting stretch goals:

 “Come up with a menu of your biggest ambitions. Dream big and stretch. Describe the goals that, at first glance, seem impossible, such as starting a company or running a marathon. Then choose one aim and start breaking it into short-term, concrete steps.” 

These goals are often seen as “high effort, high-risk goals.” They are more significant than generalized goal setting standards and can yield exponential advantages and newfound opportunities if they pay off. 

 Risk is essential in business, and many famous entrepreneurs reiterate this, from Elon Musk to Sheryl Sandberg. As the CIO of a significant technological enterprise, Ginna Raahauge reveals:

 “You have to [take risks] if you’re going to innovate and revolutionize anything with an organization. In fact, your risk tolerance is directly related to how successful you can be and that tolerance is worth challenging.” 

Essentially, stretch goals differ from conventional goals in two important ways. Namely, they entail:

Tremendous difficulty:  Since stretch goals “involve radical expectations that go beyond current capabilities and performance” (HBR, 2017), difficulty is an inevitable aspect of the process. This means that stretch goals are, by their very nature, challenging and won’t always be smooth sailing. However, the high stakes can pay off in incredible ways if you succeed. 

Tremendous novelty: Another critical component of stretch goals is the novelty factor. These goals are forging new and ingenious paths, and they are largely about working differently to the status quo rather than working harder. 

The advantages of stretch goals 

There are numerous advantages to thinking big and setting stretch goals – most notably when your business resources allow for such risks; these benefits include:

  • Boost productivity: Productivity can be enhanced when you set more extensive, more ambitious goals. When bigger goals are set, businesses often find an innovative way to streamline operations. Employees can gain greater insight into what they need to do to achieve particular aspects of the goals. 
  • Inspire motivation: Big goals can inspire motivation and create an element of excitement in any organization. When morale is enhanced, workflow increases, and objectives are achieved. 
  • Create a space for innovation: Sometimes, the most challenging of situations create a newfound space for innovation. When goals are big and bold, people are inspired to think outside the box and try new things. 
  • Attract funders: In the business world, funders are always looking for the next big thing. Setting bigger, more inspired goals can inspire funders and set you apart from competitors. 

Top tips for creating stretch goals

When you set stretch goals using the SMART method, incredible things can happen. The SMART acronym for setting goals includes the following: 

  • Specific 
  • Measurable 
  • Achievable 
  • Realistic 
  • Timeline 

These steps can be beneficial when it comes to achieving stretch goals. For example, say you’re a designer, and your big stretch goal is to curate your own solo exhibition, you’ll need to break this big goal up into achievable steps. 

stretch goals

Each step can follow the smart method. Two examples are below: 

1. Overarching stretch goal: Create a solo art and design exhibition 

Smaller sub-steps using the SMART method: 

S – Specific sub-goal – Create a portfolio of 20 designs to exhibit 

M – Measurable – Dedicate 10 hours each week to editing designs 

A – Achievable? – Yes, when spending 10 hours a week on curating and editing designs 

R- Realistic? – Yes, when you commit to these hours

T- Timeline: 2 months and 40 hours of editing and curating  

2. Overarching stretch goal: Run a marathon

Smaller sub-steps using the SMART method:

S – specific sub-goal – Run 4 x per week and build up the length of runs

M – Measurable? Dedicate 4 x hours per week to running for the first two weeks and then add an extra hour 

A – Achievable? Yes, if you stick to your running schedule and gradually build up your running distance and time 

R- Realistic? Yes, if you start training five months before the marathon. 

T – Timeline: 20 weeks before the marathon to ensure adequate training and strengthening. This will ensure that your fitness levels are sufficient come time for the marathon. 

Once the sub-goals have been achieved (such as building up your design portfolio or training for the marathon), you can continue focusing on other smaller steps to achieve them, such as: contacting galleries, advertising on social media, and networking with other creatives, or in the case of the marathon, joining a running club, entering smaller races, and enhancing your running time. These smaller, bite-size sub-goals can help you to retain focus since they break bite-sized goals down into smaller chunks.

Staying organized with management tools 

Since stretch goals are big-thinking goals, paying attention to organization is a serious must. Another great way to ensure that you achieve your stretch goals (and the smaller steps that get you there) is to stay on top of deadlines and organization, especially if there are various stakeholders involved.

One such way to do this is to use a freelance project management platform like Indy. The website offers nine comprehensive tools for freelancers and small businesses, allowing you to track time and tasks, schedule events and deadlines on an online calendar, liaise with colleagues and clients, and access professional agile project management templates, invoices, and contracts. With great organization on your side and a centralized online dashboard where you can access all documents and projects as needed, achieving goals becomes a more manageable feat.

 Place smaller sub-goals on the nifty task tracker tool and tick off items as you go. Not only does this ensure that you don’t miss out on specific steps, but it also offers the undeniable allure of ticking things off a list and completing tasks. 

 As an added bonus, it’s accessible on multiple platforms from desktop to mobile devices, making it easy to access even when you are on the road. 

The risks of stretch goals 

Stretch goals are high-risk goals, and as such, there is a big chance they won’t always pay off. According to the Harvard Business Review, they are used by larger, successful corporations pretty often, but their successful execution is not as common a phenomenon. However, when they do succeed, they usually result in highly compelling and inspiring results. 

Even many big corporate players in the game have failed to achieve specific stretch goals. For example, in 2005, Walmart set huge sustainability targets, including using 100% renewable energy. However, this goal has since moved to 50% by the year 2025 and is thus taking longer than envisioned. (HBR, 2017). Sometimes alternative approaches are needed. 

Alternative options to setting stretch goals 

It’s evident that not every company will be in the financial position to achieve stretch goals, especially if their resources are unreliable. However, there are alternative options that can yield productive results. These include: 

  • Aiming for smaller wins: Sometimes recalibration is necessary to boost business. Rather than aiming for the moon, companies can focus on smaller, more achievable wins. In 1992 Charlotte Beer became the CEO of Ogilvy at a precarious time when the once prestigious firm had lost its clout in the ad world. Internal confidence within the company was at an all-time low, and disagreements about the way forward loomed large. As such, Beer decided on a “small wins”, incremental focus, noting that the company should “activate the assets [that they] already have.” She focused on more minor, incremental improvements, and five years later, many accounts were regained, and the firm had made an extra $2 billion. (Harvard Business Review, 2017).
  • Constantly enhancing slack resources:  According to Adkins, slack resources are: “Slack resources are recognized to be those spare capabilities and assets of the organization that are variably reclaimable for re-deployment. They represent under-utilized and hidden spare energies within a company that may be recaptured and employed for a variety of tasks.”  

As such, if a firm has an over-supply of labor, equipment, people, experience, and money,” these resources can be used in innovative ways to achieve larger goals. There is no denying the fact that companies with larger resource pools can better handle failure. Added resources and emotional support systems can add to a greater capacity to handle the potential of failure. Part of this involves finding spare capabilities within the organization and recalibrating them as necessary.

  • Pursuing smaller losses rather than monumental ones:  Stretch goals are all about “high effort, high risk.” While the results can be astounding and set companies above the rest, not all businesses will realistically be able to achieve them. If your company has pretty reliable resources, but you are feeling discouraged, it might be worth embarking on Sim Sitkin’s “strategy of small losses.” This is all about learning through potential failure; however, since risks are smaller than monumental stretch goals, the backlash won’t be as debilitating if they fail. This process has two benefits. Namely, it offers valuable lessons that can be built upon for future projects and develops a culture of resilience within the organization, which in turn can result in the effective execution of stretch goals down the line.  

Many entrepreneurs throughout history have spoken about the importance of failure when it comes to innovation and successful business. As Thomas A. Edison divulged, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” The takeaway from this notion is that no incredible venture – even the lightbulb – is going to come all that easily. 

Failure is part of innovation, and in the most significant failures, newfound success can be found. Richard Branson reiterated this point when he shared, “failure is only the end if you decide to stop.” 

Predicting whether stretch goals will be successful 

According to the Harvard Business Review, stretch goals are more likely to work for companies considered successful via recent performance reviews who have “uncommitted resources available.” They offer the following checklist to see if Stretch goals could work for a particular organization and their current situation. 

  • Successful businesses (based on recent performance)

With available uncommitted resources: If a business is considered “thriving but complacent”, they are in the perfect position to utilize stretch goals and should certainly give them a shot. 

Without available uncommitted resources: If, on the other hand, a company is seen as “confident but constrained”, stretch goals may not be the most appropriate form of action. In such an instance, the “small wins” method is more likely to yield positive results. Focus on smaller, more digestible incremental goals. Over time, if these pay off, you might be in a position to set stretch goals down the line.  

  • Unsuccessful stretch goals (based on recent performance) 

With available uncommitted resources: If a company is seen as “discouraged but capable”, then it is better to avoid stretch goals for the moment and instead focus on small risk goals and “mildly risky experiments.” While some may fail, they will be a great source of knowledge, and if certain plans pay off, they might pave the way for newfound success and innovation. 

Without available uncommitted resources: If a company or business is seen as “failing but grasping”, then stretch goals won’t work at this point in time. Companies should instead opt for small wins while they attempt to reach financial stability and get themselves out of any financial struggles or debt. 

Thus, stretch goals are best suited to successful companies (based on a performance review) who have available uncommitted resources. However, this doesn’t mean that smaller companies or entrepreneurs who are struggling shouldn’t dream big. Innovation is paramount to success; it may just take smaller steps to get there for smaller businesses. 

A note on dreaming big and setting big goals 

Nonetheless, just because your firm isn’t in the economic position to aim for the moon, it doesn’t mean that you can’t dream big and set your sights on bigger and better things. Most of the big successful corporations all started out small, and it took some dreaming and risk-taking (and probably a whole bunch of failure, too) for them to get to where they are today. 

While you might have to break big goals into smaller, more manageable chunks (using the SMART method), it is never a bad idea to dream big and focus on innovations within your field. While stretch goals might not happen overnight, it’s undeniably worth thinking big and planning how best to get to the point where high effort, high-risk goals can pay off. 

The Takeaway: Stretch Goals in Conclusion 

Stretch goals are all about thinking big. While they might seem daunting at the time, they’re essential if resource-savvy enterprises want to get ahead and make big things happen. Stretch goals are genuinely for the trailblazers and revolutionaries of the world, offering the newfound potential for bigger and better things. 

Nonetheless, one also has to consider the everyday nitty-gritty when setting such professional goals. Since they are high risk, there is a chance that they may not pay off, and companies have to consider the potential fallback prior to taking such a leap. This entails a realistic look at available resources and the option of alternative methods if stretch goals are not currently a viable reality. 

What are some of your stretch goals, and how do you plan on achieving them? If you don’t feel ready for stretch goals, what smart goals do you have? Share your tips and ideas below. We would love to hear how your goal setting is going as we get stuck into 2022.