Stretch yourself

02 February, 2015

Why it's a good idea to stick your neck out from time to time

This is the time when many of you, along with working hard to ensure a strong finish to the year, will also be busy defining the longer term priorities for your business or function and your plans for next year. Soon, you will use this as input for the goals for your functions, for your team members and for yourself.

While our overall planning process is getting more robust, I feel that often, setting goals and targets becomes a negotiation. We tend to dial down our targets and focus much more on the constraints and challenges, rather than (re) imagining the possibilities and sticking our necks out. The bias seems to be to under-promise and over-deliver. While I am all for over-delivery, the challenge with this mindset is that it could lead to incremental thinking. Perhaps, we are not pushing our personal and organisational boundaries far enough?

So, today, I want to advocate that we should have stronger ambition. We should stretch ourselves and take on more aspirational goals.

The idea of stretch goals in not new. General Electric pioneered it as a management tool back in the 1990s. Jack Welch, GE’s Chairman and CEO at the time, explained it very well: “By reaching for what appears to be the impossible, we often actually do the impossible. And even when we do not quite make it, we inevitably wind up doing much better than we would have done.”

In fact, stretch goals have been used for many years to come up with breakthrough ideas. One great example is when US President John Kennedy announced in 1961, his goal of landing a man on the moon in a decade. This went on to guide much of NASA’s efforts. At that time, this was an incredibly exciting goal, even though the people involved had no real idea on how to achieve it. And when they did in 1969, it was one small step for man, but a giant leap for mankind.

In the business world, Southwest Airlines offers another excellent example. It set a goal of turning around planes at airport gates within 10 minutes, to be able to use its fleet more efficiently. This meant that passengers deplaned, baggage was unloaded, the plane was cleaned and restocked, and the new passengers got on, all in just 10 minutes. At that time, most people (regulators, Boeing and other airlines) did not think this was possible, because it took others around an hour to do the same thing. But Southwest managed to achieve this through a radically new approach drawn from race car pit crews and by doing so, redefined the industry benchmark.

Closer to us, as you know, is our 10X10 objective – our aspiration of growing 10 times with a 26% CAGR this decade.

Certainly, there are many advantages to setting bolder aspirations:

  1. Stimulates breakthrough ideas; many of the best innovations in the world were the result of people thinking big and relentlessly pursuing those ideas
  2. Encourages experimentation and risk taking
  3. Working together on a common cause, fosters great team work; bolder aspirations require everyone to pitch in like never before
  4. Lifts the overall excitement and energy in the company
  5. The process of working towards a bolder ambition can turbocharge learning 

So, why do we hesitate? Is it just a mindset issue or are there other constraints?

The worry that many of us have is what happens if we fail? What if we fall short of the aspiration? For those of us who have generally performed well consistently, the fear of perhaps not being able to over-deliver can come in the way. So, we end up setting up an objective that is more comfortable.

The challenge this poses is that unless we can find a way to break these barriers, we will get preoccupied with incremental improvements. Certainly, we may feel good about exceeding our more comfortable targets. But alas, we won’t get anywhere close to our full potential.

To achieve breakthrough results, we need to push the boundaries. We need to be uncomfortable with the status quo. Venturing into the unknown is a key part of this journey. We need to embrace failure, learn from it, take risks, and experiment more.

So, this year – go ahead, pick up one or two aspirational goals for your business or function. And while you are at it, why not pick up something at a more individual level as well?

There are plenty of areas that I can think of where we can lay out bolder aspirations. These could include things such as: dramatically improving our innovation rate or speed to market, big improvements in productivity, significant market share gains for a brand, and step change reduction in certain cost buckets.

The goals that you pick should be tangible. They should require you to do things very differently. These will keep you awake some nights. But they will excite you. Not knowing how you will do it will also make you uncomfortable. And it will provide amazing opportunities for growth.

If you are worried about what degree of stretch to take, start by picking areas where you have a 60 per cent or so comfort level and which could propel your category, business or function to the next level. That will not feel implausible, but at the same time, will pave the way for having much stronger ambition.

As always, I would love to hear your perspectives.


  • Sara Mahmood says:

    Hello Vivek Sir,
    Your post on Stretch Yourself is very inspiring. Its beautifully written how to think out of the box and set our goals which are not only impossible but unique too in its own way. Then put our heart and soul to make it possible !!! Really very inspiring.

  • Hello Vivek,

    In complete agreement with what you have expressed and a reflective article for budding leaders for sure.

    What fundamentally impacts the “stretch” is lack of the “stretch building blocks”. As managers we get too obsessed with the topline, without actually getting into the “how” of it. The fact is that we refuse to look at the “how” as we are perpetually obsessed with the UNDERPROMISE-OVERDELIVER tag.

    I rather back my manager who comes up with a 25 % growth plan with clear 10 building blocks which ask for resources and challenges the status quo, and ends with a 20 % figure.

    Better off than someone who comes with 13 % and closes the year at a 102 % achievement of his target.

    A key benefit of having the “stretch” is that one is forced to benchmark, to analyze and then to build. Am sure a 10X10 objective is not possible with the same model year-on-year but will require reorganization twice or thrice during the decade. How that would impact learnings is “incalculable”.

    A productive 8 am Monday start in India for sure 🙂


    • Vivek says:

      Thanks, Rishi. I really like the idea of “stretch building blocks”. It make the goal a lot more tangible. And even if one doesn’t achieve the goal, the building blocks can provide a great sense of accomplishment.

  • Manoj Kothari says:

    Hello Vivek,
    I can remember one statement from my old boss from M&M which is very useful in supplier Negotiations.
    “Stretch them but do not break” 🙂


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