“Stretch goals”—or “big, hairy, audacious goals,” to use the term made famous by management thinkers Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book Built to Last—have become ubiquitous in the American workplace. But they are used with varying degrees of success.
At their best, they inspire people to do more than they ever thought possible. At their worst, they encourage cheating and lead to demoralization. They have inspired some of history’s greatest triumphs, like landing a man on the moon. They have also inspired some of history’s greatest disasters, such as China’s Great Leap Forward, which resulted in famine. Even organizations that got stretch goals to work well, such as General Electric under Jack Welch, had a bumpy passage, because the psychology of stretch goals is so tricky.
So who has done it right? The following three stories—one from business, one from a nonprofit, one from a government entity—have a few things in common. The stretch goals were ambitious but not fanciful. The leaders were resolute but not high-handed. And the aims resonated positively with people, tapping into their ideals rather than greed or fear.
“IS THIS GUY SERIOUS?”
Long before Russian hacking hit the headlines, Norton AntiVirus and other Norton products had established themselves as mainstays of defense against online threats.
Indeed, a decade ago, Norton dominated the market of Internet security for regular PC owners. But much to the concern of Symantec, the company that made the products, Norton’s hold was loosening.
Customers complained that the Norton line had grown clunky and frustrating. Installation took more than 10 minutes and failed some 10% of the time. The software ate up a lot of memory, making it hard for users to run multiple applications without everything slowing to a crawl. And there were so many virus “definitions”—meaning specific remedies for different sorts of threats—that the software ate up several hundred megabytes of hard-drive space.
As Rowan Trollope, who was leading Symantec’s consumer business unit, gathered information about the product, he came to believe that a change of priorities was paramount.
Employees had become too focused on security at the expense of usability. The result was that Symantec was now producing the equivalent of a Sherman tank with 10 layers of steel when what customers really wanted was a Honda Civic with a seatbelt.
So Trollope held a series of meetings to solicit input—and then set a few highly ambitious goals. Instead of nine minutes or more, installation time should be one minute. The product should eat up far less memory when it was running, down from 50 megabytes or more to 10 megabytes. And the size of the entire package should be reduced from several hundred megabytes of hard drive space to just 100.
“The first reaction among people was, ‘Is this guy serious?’” recalls Javed Khan, who was director of one of the key engineering teams.
A TOTAL REWIRING
Rowan Trollope, who led Symantec’s consumer business unit at the time that the company overhauled its Norton line of products, inspired his colleagues to rethink what was possible by appealing to their “sense of pride and craftsmanship.”
Trollope was dead serious. The effort would be called 1 x 10 x 100. And each component of the project—the 1, the 10 and the 100—had different groups of people assigned to work on it.
One of the biggest breakthroughs concerned installation. Brian Powell, who was lead engineer on this part of the project, concluded with his team that the only way to get installation down to a minute was to upend every assumption about it.
At the time, installation of anything onto a Windows machine required something called a “Microsoft installer”—a set of Microsoft-provided general-purpose code that was akin to a shuttle bus between airplane and terminal. Some of Norton’s products required at least 10 such installers. So why not instead create an installer in-house, something tailor-made for the product?
But this was hardly easy. It would be a major change, and Symantec would have to deploy representatives to persuade companies like Dell and HP to allow these non-Microsoft installers to be used on their machines.
All of this took place over the span of about 16 to 20 weeks, and the stress was tremendous. But it worked. Everyone delivered. The new release received enthusiastic reviews. In fact, installation was now so fast that many customers couldn’t believe it. “People were literally calling support thinking the install had failed,” says Powell.
Of course, setting big goals is easy. Getting people to buy into them is something else. What made it work in this case?
Trollope says the key was a mix of debate and persuasion. “It can never be command and control,” he says. “It’s about buy-in and listening and storytelling.”
Trollope spoke to essential players about what meeting the goals could mean for their careers. And he encouraged people in meetings to air their concerns and disagreements.
“There were some pretty heated conversations,” remembers Wei Lin, who was leading an organization called the Security Technology Group. This allowed everyone to feel that the necessary considerations had been factored into the decision.
Trollope also created a narrative. “It’s not the facts and figures but the emotional storytelling that convinces people,” he says.
When incremental seems OK, you need to step back and look for exponential.
Former engineer, Symantec
In this case, the story was about a company that needed to reconnect with its better self. “There’d been a time when we’d go to the computer store, and if we were wearing our Peter Norton shirts, people would stop us in the aisles and thank us profusely,” Trollope says. “But when was the last time that happened? I appealed to that emotional sense of pride and craftsmanship.”
Finally, once the decision was made, Trollope held firm. “He was nice about it, but very firm about it,” says Khan. “He was very clear that this was not negotiable and this was serious.” One engineer objected so strongly to the new priorities that he quit. Trollope says this didn’t hurt the effort; on the contrary, it underscored the firmness of the new objectives.
The 1 x 10 x 100 project took up a few months nearly 10 years ago, but those involved in it say it was revelatory. To this day, Powell recommends such an exercise for every organization.
“When incremental seems OK,” says Powell, who along with Khan and Trollope now works at Cisco, “you need to step back and look for exponential.”
GOAL SETTING IN WONDERLAND
One evening some years ago, a recently retired San Antonio homebuilder named Gordon Hartman was sitting at a hotel pool as his then-12-year-old daughter, Morgan, tried to play with a group of kids her age. It was difficult to watch.
Morgan was born with serious developmental delays that impede her speech and movement. The kids became uncomfortable and climbed out of the pool, leaving Morgan alone.
During this painful moment, Hartman—who had already launched a foundation to help local special-needs nonprofits—daydreamed about what he wanted next: a place in which everybody, no matter what sort of disability they had, would feel welcome and could participate in everything. It would also be a place where a regular kid could get used to having fun with special-needs kids and think nothing of it.
“I went to a lot of places and looked,” says Hartman, “and there were no places like this.”
Here is where Hartman’s story diverges from those of countless other daydreamers. As a builder, he had a sense of what goes into construction projects, and he had access to a promising site—with water—on the grounds of a place called the Longhorn Quarry, long since fully excavated, in the northeast part of the city.
So he set a lofty goal: to fund and construct a 25-acre theme park that would be 100-percent accessible for all. No attraction—carousel, Ferris wheel, whatever—would be unavailable to anyone. And admission for anybody with special needs would be free. He’d call it Morgan’s Wonderland.
Hartman hired a graphic designer named Tracie Ochoa, who had worked with him on marketing materials for his homebuilding company, to design the park. For the next several months, she traveled across the country to visit other amusement parks, taking note of discrete local accessibility innovations, large and small. But there was nothing out there like what Hartman envisioned.
After a couple of years of planning and fundraising, Hartman broke ground on Morgan’s Wonderland in 2009, with a one-year building schedule that was a stretch goal of its own. “He would approach people with these timelines, and they’d say there’s no way,” Ochoa recounts.
The park, which cost $37 million, opened to the public in April 2010 to enthusiastic notice. The dictate of complete accessibility had been honored. Kids in wheelchairs could enjoy a carousel on which even the wheelchair platforms moved up and down, much like the animals. Autistic children who had a tendency to run away at full speed into crowds could be outfitted with RFID wristbands, so that parents could go to a “Location Station” and quickly track them down. Many people—some of them adults—got to try a swing for the first time, because they could stay in their wheelchairs.
Hartman was far from done, however.
Morgan’s Wonderland operated with more $1 million in annual losses because ticket prices were low and anyone with disabilities got in free. So in 2010, Hartman decided to form yet another nonprofit, Soccer for a Cause, that would bring a professional team to San Antonio, with all of the profits going to Morgan’s Wonderland. This became the San Antonio Scorpions. Two years later, he drew up plans for a soccer stadium for the Scorpions next to Morgan’s Wonderland.
“Hartman is either an amazing visionary” or he’s “a certifiable kook,” wrote one commenter.
The former turned out to be correct. The stadium, Toyota Field, opened in 2013, and the Scorpions moved in. Then, in 2015, Hartman sold the team and the stadium to the city and donated his take, $21 million, to Morgan’s Wonderland.
Morgan’s Wonderland had been well received, drawing more than 100,000 visitors a year—and growing. But Hartman and his team heard two frequent requests: First, can you build a rollercoaster? And, second, can you add water attractions to make the heat easier to endure?
Ochoa says that the team spent considerable energy on trying to come through on the former, but even a stretch goal wasn’t enough in this case. Fast swings would place too much strain on the necks of some park-goers. “If 100% of folks can’t do it, we’re not doing it,” says Ron Morander, the park’s general manager.
I went to a lot of places and looked, and there were no places like this.
Founder, Morgan’s Wonderland
Water was another story. Hartman managed to secure three acres for a splash park adjacent to Morgan’s Wonderland and set his team to work. “The concept made me almost lightheaded,” says Ochoa, who was overwhelmed by the logistics but thrilled by the prospect. Among the requirements: thousands of feet of underground piping, plus machinery, and technology that would allow large quantities of water to be splashed on people who might be dependent on electric wheelchairs.
The pipes and machinery got installed; the rides were made sufficiently accessible, and Hartman’s staff connected with a team at the University of Pittsburgh that had designed a wheelchair that operates on compressed air—the “PneuChair.” This would allow every visitor a way to splash around. The splash park, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, opened this past June.
As wondrous as all of this has seemed, Hartman insists that his objectives are always well grounded. (His latest include the expansion of a school for children with special needs and a $17 million clinic.)
“You’ve got to set realistic goals,” he says, adding with the authority of a longtime homebuilder, “I see the place before I build it.”
Gordon Hartman’s expansive vision has helped young people with special needs experience wonders that they never thought were possible.
MOON SHOTS IN JASPER
Marketing and communications professional Terry Seitz hadn’t planned to get into local politics.
His wife worked as an administrator for the city of Jasper, Indiana, and Seitz confined his role to one of participating in public meetings. In 2008, however, Seitz’s wife received a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease, and she died two years later. With the encouragement of friends, Seitz decided to throw himself into something new, and announced that he’d join those running to replace the outgoing mayor. He won.
The city of 16,000 that Seitz inherited when he took office in 2011 was in good shape. Crime was low, schools were good, and the budget was in surplus. Few people had anything but praise for Seitz’s predecessor, who had held the job for decades.
While the pressures of globalization had caused some employers in the region to go under, other businesses had retooled themselves and come out stronger. Unemployment was close to zero. Jasper regularly made the lists of best places to live in America.
But Seitz felt that Jasper’s hold on prosperity was precarious. Thriving workplaces and low unemployment were blessings, but unless the city was getting involved with helping to attract investment and people from the outside world, it risked stagnating and, ultimately, slipping into reverse.
“You either invest in your future or manage your decline,” says City Attorney Renee Kabrick, a Seitz ally. “That was the message we tried to continue to teach and put out to our community.”
What Jasper needed was increased economic development and a growing population. It also needed to groom the sort of talent that would attract major employers and the sort of housing and infrastructure that would set it up for grander things. In short, it needed to become more active in shaping its future.
All of this was fine in theory. But Jasper is a conservative town that prizes self-sufficiency and caution. “We have a German heritage, and we had a we-can-take-care-of-ourselves attitude,” says Jasper businessman Jim Thyen, who for 14 years was head of the area’s biggest business, furniture and electronics manufacturer Kimball International, with 6,000 employees.
Spending heavily for uncertain future gain was viewed skeptically. Seitz tried to challenge this mindset. “Stay in the black, but invest what you’re collecting,” he explains. “Don’t necessarily be proud of $10 million in an unused account in the bank.” But it wasn’t an easy sell.
Seitz was also new to government, so coming in cold and setting moon shots for Jasper’s civil servants was not likely to go over well. Nor could he operate without the support of the city council. So Seitz spent time learning the ropes. And he bolstered his position by invoking a mandate bigger than his mere say-so: Jasper’s comprehensive plan, one that had been approved unanimously by the city council in 2010, only a year before he’d taken office.
It was full of stretch goals, such as the acquisition of new parkland, the pursuit of state grants and tax credits, the upgrading of infrastructure and the redevelopment of old properties through tax-increment financing. Seitz decided to treat this blueprint as more than a formality and actually hold the city to it.
“We passed this plan,” Seitz told his colleagues. “Did you read it?”
What followed over the next several years was a flurry of investment and development, including a $26 million residential and retail property called River Centre, located on a former industrial site in downtown Jasper. Seitz also seized the chance for the city to purchase a nine-hole golf course and convert it to a 75-acre park.
“When people see the projects are really happening,” says Kabrick, “much of the tension dissolves, and the excitement builds.”
Seitz also tapped new sources of funding. Early in his term, he paid a visit to the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, a state agency, and asked to review the correspondence it had had with Jasper. “They had one manila folder with one page in it,” he recalls. The city clearly needed to shake some trees.
Seitz worked hard to make opportunities known to potential investors. When local millennials formed a group called Next Act to buy an old theater, The Astra, they raised several hundred thousand dollars for the purchase and received a $400,000 grant from the state. The city also invited the public library board to join a city department, Jasper Community Arts, to build a combined Jasper Cultural Center on yet another former industrial site. The collaboration led the State of Indiana to grant the project $3.4 million in tax credits, and Seitz put together a nonprofit that raised $4.6 million in additional private funds. Thyen and his wife contributed $1.7 million to the arts project in a community challenge grant that residents matched. The upshot: Thyen says the mindset of everyone has changed in recent years. “Now we view the state and the state views us as key partners, for continued community, business and economic development,” he says.
Despite all of the progress, however, population growth has been smaller than city officials would have liked, holding at about 1% a year—better than many rural areas, where decline is normal, but not blistering. For all of the improvements to Jasper’s infrastructure and cultural life, there’s no guarantee that newcomers from other parts of the state will swell in number. Cities far from the coasts face hard challenges.
And at least by some measures, Seitz’s efforts have remained a tough sell. When he won reelection in 2015, it was by only one vote—1,856 to 1,855.
Nonetheless, the mayor reports that he’s enjoying his job more than ever. “I may never have another opportunity like this,” he says.
Neither may Jasper. We’ve all heard that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But in today’s competitive world, if it ain’t broke, that might be precisely when you need to lay out some stretch goals. *
What will you do on Monday that’s different?
STRIKE A BALANCE
Sit down with your team and review your main goals for the year, assessing whether these objectives are, in Peter Drucker’s words, appropriately “hard to achieve” but not unachievable—which is just plain “foolish.”
AIM HIGH, NOT WIDE
Take a hard look at each of your major projects to ensure that while you’re aiming high, your idea is focused and not trying to do too many things at once.
PUT ON YOUR PILOT CAP
Evaluate any new projects by asking yourself, “Am I not only thinking big enough from the start, but am I starting small enough by adequately testing and piloting the idea before trying to scale it?”