Goals as a Liberating Force

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I recently had a conversation with a leader who was frustrated with the ability of his people to set goals and to prioritize their time. It is a complaint I have heard often over the years.

In many companies today, executive teams are in the habit of setting stretch goals that require everyone to constantly work at a sprint pace. Leaders want their organization to aim for the stars. They need results. Fast. Some even hope for innovation.

Yet people are exhausted. There is no more down time. No more time for renewal. No time for play, experimenting, and true innovation. There seems to only be time for working harder.

How do we set goals that are bold enough to yield innovation, yet realistic enough to be motivating? How do we set goals that are not so bold as to create cynicism, yet not so realistic as to be uninspiring?

Ideally, an organization would start with some scenario thinking, exploring several plausible but very different futures that could emerge over time. Imagining yourself in these futures, you can brainstorm goals and strategies that would enable you to succeed there. Then you can come back to the present and identify the top two or three goals for your organization. Keep them simple. Make them sticky.

Next, for each goal, distinguish three levels of aspiration:

The BAM (Bare A** Minimum) Goal must be reached for employees to retain their jobs.

The Stretch Goal requires employees to learn and grow to succeed, but it is attainable, and if it is achieved, they will get their bonus.

The Breakthrough Goal is beyond stretch; it cannot be achieved through working harder or faster. It can only be achieved through significant innovation, through a fundamental re-thinking of some aspect of the value chain.

When organizations develop meaningful stretch goals, plans can be made, targets hit, and commitments kept. Burnout is avoided. When organizations commit to breakthrough goals with a “no penalty clause” if they aren’t achieved, then they create an environment in which everyone has the freedom to truly experiment and play. Work becomes more exciting and less exhausting. You might even see some innovation. You might even have some fun!

What is the breakthrough goal that would bring your organization alive if it were given permission to freely explore it without repercussions?

  • joseph.blaylock

    So this sounds pretty good to me – and it directly addresses the problem in my strategy comment on http://groupaya.net/blog/2011/10/strategy-the-groupaya-way/ that screwing up your timescale can just kill you (with boredom or work.) So this is exciting and good.

    I wonder Kristin if you have any thoughts on what this would look like in nontraditional, non-corporate organizations? I, for example, work for a public institution. But I don’t actually do any work for them; I actually do all of my work as a participant in a consensus-driven international collaboration. So my management, while they sign my checks, doesn’t really have the insight to provide me with meaningful goals. And my collaborators lack both the resources to give me a carrot or the one-way power flow to give me a stick.

    I suppose the closest thing to relate my situation to would be volunteer-driven non-profits, where you get a lot of people who are committed to a mission but who don’t have particular financial incentive to forward it. The volunteer coordinator can’t motivate people with bonuses or money and can’t punish people with anything other than asking them not to volunteer any more. Which may be enough social pressure, but obviously isn’t always.

    So making this explicit, what wrinkles do you imagine being present in applying this kind of goal setting strategy to the volunteer workforce? And do you see any clear mitigations?

    To take a very concrete example, how would you recommend the management at Greenpeace do meaningful goal setting to help them towards some particular strategic outcome?

    • Kristin Cobble


      Hi Joe,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and questions! This “technique” of setting BAM, Stretch, and Breakthrough goals can work for any kind of organization or network. It even works for individuals setting their own personal goals!

      Your question about how this applies to volunteers is interesting. In my experience, the best way to get anyone to commit to collective goals, whether they are an employee or a volunteer, is through giving them a say in the creation of them. So the biggest challenge with volunteers is getting them all in the same room at the same time. I have yet to try a goal setting process on-line, asynchronously, but I suppose that could be done with select populations of volunteers. (As you know, Eugene has had great success working with Wikimedia volunteers from around the world in a yearlong strategy development process for the Wikimedia Foundation. See the following link for more information on the project:http://www.managementexchange.com/story/strategic-

      As far as consensus-driven international collaboration, or any kind of multi-stakeholder group effort, there are additional techniques I call on to help a group develop goals. To more fully address those situations, I will write another blog post!

      Best regards,


  • Rivera


    Thank you for the invite. Both Julia Tran and I will be there tomorrow. Very relevant topic for us.

    See you soon.