Stretch goals

imageStretch goals are a common (but flawed) means for leaders to set ambitious targets in the hope of challenging them to achieve unprecedented levels of team performance. Such goals are best considered by examining them in the context of the unique aspects of the environment in which they are being pursued, considering the historical causes of gaps between desired and actual performance, and after making realistic provisions for the most significant impediments to progress. Instead, these stretch goals often are described in terms of unarguable aspirations in an attempt to initiate action and encourage out-of-the-box thinking - usually along with hopes that such goals will motivate the team to pursue their own grand visions.

While such lofty goals may stir some action in the short term, it is important for participants to stay firmly grounded in reality as they pursue more ambitious horizons over the longer-term. To understand why this is the case, consider what it takes for a few friends to plan a hike through a nearby park. As long as the trails are familiar, the group is physically fit, and everyone has the necessary equipment, the route selection can be made democratically, based upon the self interests of a majority of the team members themselves. Since the team going on the hike will also be the ones making and affected by these decisions, and are all voluntarily participating in the effort, they can each be accountable to each other for safety, timing, and which turns to take while they travel along the route; each member bears the consequences of any mistakes they make. The choice of one path over another may not matter all that much, as long as the risks of each choice are properly managed. The objectives they set will entirely be theirs own. Should disagreements arise in the course of the activity, any individual can elect to pull out of the endeavor, and still return safely; the hike may even be canceled at the last minute, should the weather prove unfavorable, without a lot being invested. 

Now consider the alternative challenge of making a truly major climb, such as a summit attempt up a much more difficult terrain, like to the top of K2. The preparations and investment required for attempting such a summit assault require nearly five years of preparation, enormous self-reliance, superb technical skills, peak physical endurance, and experience in leading and organizing such an endeavor.​ While summitting is a laudable objective, it is more important for most to live to tell others about the experience.

​​K2 has no commercial expeditions such as are available when climbing Everest. To get to where you can even see K2, one must first plan an approach through either China or Pakistan; each have their own significant administrative and political challenges. The task of transporting supplies for the assault requires arranging jeeps, camels, and porters to haul provisions for the entire team for 3 months, and the equipment which will be needed, such as thousands of feet of rope, up to base camp. After reaching that collecting point, there will be still more hurdles that each must be achieved along the way. Yet once the teams are on the mountain, it is far too late to think about the need for extra resources, protection, or information.

Timing is key to each jump from one intermediate camp to the next. For example, K2 has never been conquered in the winter. Even in the spring and summer, it is rare for there to be a three or four day window without a storm. The local environmental conditions along the way determine whether the next camp at altitude should even be attempted. Pushing forward under unrealistic conditions is suicidal, not brave. Once on the mountain, youth and vigor trump age and experience. Wisdom is essential to making good judgments along the way; turning back is costly and disappointing. Yet for every 4 people who have successfully reached the summit, a fifth has perished while attempting the journey.

Achieving one, specific, well-defined, and ambitious goal is difficult enough; but when many such goals must be achieved collectively by teams, and the achievements are highly interdependent, the real challenges of long term planning in the face of uncertainty emerges. Imagine trying to produce a plan to climb all the 'eight-thousanders' in the world. As of 2013, only 30 people have achieved this goal. Each assent of each mountain requires several months from departure to return, while planning for each assent can easily extend to a year or more. The time to complete all assents of all of the mountains has taken those who have done it from between 9 and 17 years to complete. The possible combinations simply cannot all be planned up front. Each success is monumental, but the order in which each mountain has been climbed, and the routes taken by the teams these people were on, are driven nearly entirely by the environmental conditions in which target objectives are pursued, the skill and experience of each team, and the sponsorship available for these pursuits. Those who achieved this goal indeed all shared a common vision and enormous drive, but none could hope to accurately plan what others might actually experience along the way, except in the most general of outlines.

Ambitious goals are thus easy to set, but difficult to pursue, especially when one finds themselves on the side of a mountain without food, oxygen, or shelter, and with no good options up or down.