The Secret to Managing a "Stretch Goal"

Last Updated Jun 28, 2010 5:20 PM EDT

Challenging employees or an entire organization with a stretch goal can elicit great performance -- but only if you as the leader know how to manage what can be a daunting and scary process. Here's what you don't do: Announce the goal, explain the reason, and let people get to work. Steps one and two are good, but you have a lot of work ahead of you before the work begins.

The key, says Robert Sutton on, is to break the goal down into bite-size, manageable steps:

You're a bad boss if, once those goals are known and accepted, you keep mindlessly invoking them. Rather than continually drawing people's attention to that distant horizon, help them see what they can and must accomplish right now. Let them proceed calmly, with confidence, and with the motivation that comes from taking clear little steps -- and they may just accomplish those big hairy goals.
This is great advice. As a manager, you may have drawn up a stretch goal for an employee and immediately seen fear and consternation reflected back at you. How much better to lay out the goal and then talk about the step-by-step road map you'll both follow to see success.

What's your experience with "BHAGs," as Jim Collins calls big, hairy, audacious goals?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.