The Power of Rapid Results

The Power of Rapid Results

06.22.13Ron Ashkenas

The key to integrating the two is to carve quick wins out of long-term goals

Last year, my fellow HBR blogger Daniel Markovitz suggested that stretch goals can be demotivating, and should be replaced by confidence-building “quick wins.” Frankly, this is like saying that the taste of food is more important than its nutrient value. It’s a false dichotomy. Healthy organizations need both stretch and success to stay alive and vibrant, just like a well-balanced diet includes food that is both tasty and healthy.

The key to integrating the two is to carve quick wins out of long-term goals – so that each small success is a building block towards achieving a broader challenge. It’s important however that these small successes themselves be microcosms of the larger goal, and not simply serve as check-marks for harvesting low hanging fruit. Rather, these small stretches (we call them Rapid Results) need to force people out of their comfort zones to try new approaches, ideas, and ways of working in 100 days or less.

Over the past several decades, my colleagues and I have seen the power of short-term stretch goals in almost every imaginable situation. For example:

  • In order to achieve seemingly impossible growth targets, an adhesives materials company challenged dozens of divisional teams to each implement one “growth idea” that would generate new revenue in 100 days. One team, for instance, revised a commercial taping product for home use and partnered with Home Depot to sell it. Over the next two years, hundreds of such teams around the world helped the company increase revenues while creating further opportunities for growth. These “small stretches” also energized participants and helped them develop capabilities as growth leaders. As one manager said, “I learned more in 100 days than I had in the previous several years.”
  • To achieve stretch sales goals, the commercial head of a health care company challenged her global team to boost revenues from older brands without losing focus on their primary products. To make this happen, a cross-functional team from each market selected ten promising brands and focused on getting initial, measurable results on one of them in 100days.Over the next year, these teams built on the initial results so that the collective gain was over half a billion dollars.

Short-term stretch goals also work with community development and not-for-profit initiatives. As part of an effort to increase education in Southern Sudan, a team of villagers with help from an NGO took on the challenge of increasing school attendance by 30% in 100 days.The villagers were so motivated to achieve this goal, that they eventually made their own bricks to construct a new building. A few years later a child from that village was the first from his region to attend a university. Recently, an effort in the U.S. to provide housing for 100,000 homeless veterans is utilizing the same approach by carving out short-term stretch goals in a number of cities around the country.

Regardless of context, there are two keys to the effective use of short-term stretch goals.

  1. The first is to make sure that the immediate goals are part of a larger, more ambitious effort so that whatever is achieved and learned is a building block, not an end-in-itself. In other words, extremely ambitious stretch goals need to be deconstructed into lots of short-term stretch goals, sometimes with multiple cycles.
  2. Second, intentionally design the short-term stretch goals in ways that force innovation, collaboration, and learning – so it’s not just a matter of working harder for a short period of time. In this way, each short-term success builds capability and knowledge for the next and the next.

Let’s not dismiss stretch goals as demotivating or dangerous. If you tackle them by carving out short-term challenges, and learn as you go, they can be a powerful way to accelerate progress.

What’s your experience with short-term stretch goals?

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Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Forbes. Join the discussion.

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