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How identifying stretch goals can promote business growth 9 min read
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Leveraged correctly, stretch goals can take your organization to the next level. They can fuel innovation as they create challenges that motivate your best employees and even attract new talent. When your company is able to achieve its stretch goals, upward leaps in both performance and profit are possible. However, they are not without risk — it’s vital that you set the right stretch goals and reach for them at the appropriate time. Let’s take a look at how implementing stretch goals properly can help your organization level up.

“Stretch goals” is a part of our Project Management Glossary — check out the full list of terms and definitions!

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What are stretch goals?

Stretch goals are goals that challenge the capacities and expectations of an organization. They demand a lot of effort and carry with them a lot of risk. These goals are largely aspirational, requiring team members to reach beyond their standard level of accomplishment to achieve something new and exciting. When a team achieves a stretch goal, the team members often develop a greater sense of motivation for the next goal, feeling enthusiastic about their work and bonded as a team. Stretch goals often inspire innovation and productivity.

Sometimes, partial achievement of a stretch goal is enough to fuel the motivation of a team. Realistic stretch goals encourage growth, while unrealistic, audacious goals intentionally aim to move teams out of their comfort zone and beyond the norm. The latter is unusual in that the stretch target is often thought to be unachievable. If an unrealistic stretch goal is actually reached, its exceptional results can open new markets and areas of growth for a company.

Understanding whether a stretch goal strategy is a smart idea for your business is critical. Stretch goals can be a great idea for an enterprise that’s already strong and performing well. Companies will often turn to stretch goals when they feel employees are becoming complacent about their work. However, setting overly ambitious goals can be a poor choice for those whose resources are already stretched thin.

Stretch goals vs. traditional goals

Stretch goals are not a replacement for the traditional goals that you set for your business. In many cases, though, stretch goals can complement your standard goals. Many organizations set SMART goals as their standard objectives, designing goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. For example, your sales team might set a SMART goal to increase sales revenue in a certain division by 40% over the coming year. That achievable goal could accompany a stretch goal that calls for increasing sales revenue in that division by 400% over the year. The stretch goal may not be achievable, but by aiming for it, your sales team might end up with a 120% increase in revenue they might not otherwise have believed possible.

Unlike traditional goals, stretch goals should be extremely difficult to achieve. They should be beyond the reach of your team based its on historical performance, resources and capabilities. In addition, stretch goals should require radically different approaches for achievement. If a goal can be achieved simply by having your team work harder or longer, it’s not truly a stretch goal. Stretch goals require out-of-the-box thinking that leads to new and different solutions to problems. The more extreme a goal is and the more extreme its required approach, the more likely it is to be an actual stretch goal.

How stretch goals affect projects

Stretch goals are most appropriate for strong, established teams: those that are performing well and enjoy high morale. This is part of the stretch goal paradox, a concept introduced in Harvard Business Review. The paradox consists of the fact that stretch goals are of most value among teams that are already successful. Teams that are struggling, paradoxically, may struggle even more when trying to reach a stretch goal. Team leaders may set overly ambitious goals when their teams are undergoing a losing streak, inadvertently creating a toxic work environment with an exercise that was initially supposed to provide motivation. A struggling team’s chances of success are low when confronted with such a goal, and team members may feel intimidated and demoralized by the attempt.

In contrast, teams that have been doing well are likely to become complacent with their performance. They may dwell on their past successes and not even think of challenging themselves. In these cases, stretch goals can inspire teams to new heights and create enthusiasm for reaching original goals that require innovation and fresh approaches to achieve.

Examples of stretch goals

When a stretch goal is actually achieved, it sometimes makes history. A famous example is the U.S. race to put a person on the moon in the 1960s — a long-term goal that was achieved ahead of schedule. In business, one notable example was Southwest Airlines’ stretch goal in 1972. At that time, the airline was in financial trouble and had even sold one of its four planes to make expenses. As a result, Southwest had to meet its flight schedule with only 75% of the carrying capacity it needed. So, the company set an ambitious stretch goal, calculating that it could fulfill its schedule if it reduced the one-hour turnaround time to get a plane in and out of the gate to a mere 10 minutes. Though it was considered impossible, Southwest achieved that stretch goal through a complete revision of staff practices and a reset of customer expectations. The bold move turned the company around, and Southwest’s diminished fleet has since grown in number from three to approximately 739 planes.

When a stretch goal is actually achieved, it sometimes makes history.

What constitutes a stretch goal for your company depends on your unique situation. A small business could consider it a stretch goal to open a second brick-and-mortar shop, while a customer service team handling phone contacts might focus on reducing customer wait time from 30 minutes to one minute. If you run a nonprofit organization, your stretch goals might include increased fundraising, while a marketing team may set a stretch goal of reaching 1 million qualified leads within a quarter.

Benefits and risks of stretch goals

Stretch goals can be beneficial if you have a team that’s ready to take them on. For many organizations, stretch goals are exciting. Team members become enthusiastic about possibilities they’ve never considered before, and they become confident as they begin to see results — complacency washes away. Stretch goals also bond teams together and help enhance loyalty to the organization, in part because everyone feels they’re contributing to a larger goal. These goals encourage creativity and “blue sky” thinking, since employees have to find new approaches to reach their goals, and they can turn a humdrum work environment into one humming along with innovation. Employees often become more productive across the board because of the extra efficiency and creativity required to meet stretch goals.

However, stretch goals also present some real risks, especially if they are vague or wildly unrealistic. When employees are asked to accomplish tasks that are far outside their skill sets, they may end up feeling inferior. If you’ve established a stretch goal that isn’t designed to be met, team members may ultimately deem themselves failures — even if they’ve achieved far more than you expected. In some cases, teams may even resort to unethical behavior to try to meet their stretch goals, all to avoid the psychological cost of being seen as inadequate. Stretch goals also often bring with them a great deal of pressure and stress, especially if the team involved does not have the necessary resources or time to achieve them.

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How to come up with and achieve stretch goals with

One of the ways to set and achieve stretch goals is with a robust project management system that includes the tools at With a strong system in place, project managers can break stretch goals down into smaller, individual goals and implement goal tracking to measure the progress of their teams.’s Quarterly Objectives Template can help you focus on goal achievement within a defined time frame, while the SMART Goals Template can help you make practical choices when setting even the most ambitious goal. Making sure your team has all the resources it needs to achieve a stretch goal is a key factor in its success.

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Frequently asked questions

What is a stretch goal?

A stretch goal is an ambitious, challenging goal that demands that an organization or team “stretch” its normal capabilities to achieve it.

Why are stretch goals important?

Stretch goals are important because they inspire teams to think big and accomplish goals they might not consider possible. These goals encourage innovation and creativity while ramping up motivation and enthusiasm among employees.

How to set stretch goals

The process of setting a stretch goal involves defining the goal; assessing whether the resources are available to pursue it; creating an action plan and timeline for the project; and tracking progress toward the goal. Stretch goals are most appropriate for organizations that are already thriving and productive, and that have the resources needed to pursue them.

Are stretch goals right for your organization?

Not every organization should pursue stretch goals, and not every time is the right time to pursue them. That said, organizations with the resources to make a giant leap can aim for goals that are simultaneously ambitious and risky. The right stretch goal can move your team past stagnation and toward innovation when you employ smart tools to guide the way.

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