Castles in the air – Setting stretch targets

As Henry David Thoreau observed ‘If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.’
The right ambitious or stretch targets can be really useful for driving creativity and excitement, for creating almost the sense of a shared adventure along a challenging and unforseen journey to a mountaintop achievement. They can create energy, insight, fun and fulfillment.

The alternative is that we pick targets which we are already pretty confident we can achieve. Where is the creativity in that? We are eternally busy people and will nearly always pick the tried and trusted over the uncertain as we seek to deliver our commitments, and so will our colleagues around us. Even if we can see the potential of a better possibility, it will be an uphill battle to convince our colleagues to invest more than is required for success.
But if success is an ambitious commitment for us all, our colleagues will more readily engage in a discussion that could make it easier and more achievable. And creativity will flow, people will be more real, and the journey more exciting.
The fundamental difference between a set of targets where you can reasonably already see how they can be achieved, and including some where you cannot, is the difference between ‘drudgery and routine’ and ‘adventure and fulfilment’.
That does not mean that you should fall foul of business politics and hold yourselves hostage in an unsupportive culture – nobody said you have to publish your ambitious goals to those who will hold them against you. But for your own growth, wellbeing and spiritual journey, you should have them.
The value of stretch targets can in part be demonstrated by a simple exercise. Read the following scenario, and then have a go at making your list of what you would investigate:
You need to produce a report once a calendar month on the results of the business. Typically the report takes 8 hours to collate, 4 hours to type, 4 hours to check and correct and 4 hours to distribute. The collation and checking is done by you within your busy schedule and the typing and distribution is done by borrowing someone else’ secretary.
Following a change in the accounting schedule there is a request to produce the report every four-week period. You have been asked if this is possible for you. What do you investigate before you confirm your answer?
Once you have your list, consider the situation again, but this time imagine that you have been asked if this is possible for you to produce the report on a daily basis. What now do you investigate before you confirm your answer?
Where people have not been alerted to the purpose of this exercise by what the have previously read, the two investigations look quite different. The second list often has far more interesting and groundbreaking changes inferred than the first list.
But why? If you can do the report in a day you can repeat that day every four weeks, so why were the ideas in the second list not available as considerations in our first list?
The answer of course is that our minds shifted up a gear as a result of the tension caused by not being able to see ‘an obvious answer’ – we became more creative. But we became more creative only in response to a target challenge, not because we remember to try to be creative when faced with any opportunity for change.

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