How a golf swing made me argue with HBR

How a golf swing made me argue with HBR
April 23, 2012 Derek Fournier

Now, let’s get one thing straight –  Daniel Markovitz is clearly accomplished. He is published in the Harvard Business Review and is a good writer. That being said, I think his article The Folly of Stretch Goals is a combination of over simplification of a term and bad advice. It is another example of thought leaders trying to make hard things easy and provide a prescription for success. To actually do that, you have to go deep down to fundamentals. You cannot start at the outer layer and make tweaks that are universal simply because the position you are tweaking was almost clearly impacted by the foundation upon which it was built.

Stretch goals have no universally accepted definition. Most things don’t as pointed out by this far better article on the death of facts. But generically, stretch goals are a way to make your employees stretch out of their comfort zone and achieve more than they thought possible. In most management speak and writing, people try to boil everything down to an easy scenario. “This and not that,” or “Vague Business Advice Example 1 NEVER works!” (They often take the ALWAYS works approach.) If you are pontificating on a particular tactic or strategy, you will rarely find something that black or white. To illustrate, I want to tell you about my time at the Graves Golf Academy last week.

I love to play golf. I, like most of you, suck at golf. As a young person, I always worked my ass off to become good at sports to avoid being the last picked (I will write later on how a little bullying might actually be okay). As an adult who mocked the game and was later confounded by how bad I was at it, I did not have the same motivator to improve. Hell, most everyone I golf with is as bad or worse than I am.

I turned 40 this year and I committed to becoming a better player. To do that, I attended a week long golf academy put on by the Graves Golf Academy. I won’t bore you with how awesome the academy was but I want to reiterate one of the core messages.

When diagnosing your problems with the golf swing, always start with the first thing first. In golf, the first thing is the grip. Tweaking your backswing or worrying about your hands getting through impact too open is useless without making sure your grip is proper. Note I did not say that it was ‘not a good idea.’ It is USELESS. If your grip is off, every other thing in your swing is affected. That is the closest thing to a fact you will find. If your grip is good, you move to your address. That is the next step. By approaching your corrections in this controlled fashion, you can make a change early in the process (a fundamental change) and notice the symptoms you started investigating simply disappear because you addressed the cause. You didn’t waste time on the symptoms.

How does all of this apply to stretch goals and Markovitz’s improper assertion? Well, the three areas that he attacks in the evil world of stretch goals are:

  1. Stretch goals can be terribly demotivating.
  2. Stretch goals have a dangerous tendency to foster unethical behavior.
  3. Finally, stretch goals can also — tragically — lead to excessive risk taking.

While I have issues with each of those points on the surface, I have to get back to a foundation to treat the cause. Does Markovitz ever define a stretch goal?

No.

In each section he dances around a vague notion. In the first assault he asserts, “When stretch goals seem overwhelming and unattainable, they sap employees’ intrinsic motivation.” Um, duh! two problems on the surface here. Stretching is a way to grow. The risk associated is that you will not grow and not meet the goal. If your team/company/whatever realizes that risk is necessary to improve and if you fail trying to grow and do so in an ethical manner then you have found a great learning opportunity. While I am no advocate or fan of failing, I am indeed an advocate of trying to do more than you think you can. If you do not do that very basic thing you will never grow. But Markovitz’s premise is that you set out to force failure. That is bad management and not the fault of the construct of ‘stretch goals.’

In the second section, the clarification on stretch goals is, “A stretch goal is most often an outcome metric, and is influenced by so many variables that systematic, scientific improvement isn’t possible.” While I call bullshit on his blanket assertion (and so should you) he does point out a great example of a bad goal in general and gives a good case study for it. But again, this is not a problem with the tool – unless you mean the manager that set the dumb goal.

In the final section, Markovitz calls on the familiar whipping boy, Enron. “Enron rewarded its executives with large bonuses for meeting specific revenue goals, irrespective of the profitability or the riskiness of the moves. Although the final book hasn’t been written on sub-prime mortgages and the ensuing banking crisis, we do know that stretch goals played a large role in putting the investment banks in serious jeopardy.” Sound familiar? Yup, it is the second one repeated.

Moral to the story is that the problem here is bad management. When you have a team and you are setting goals, start with goals that can be easily and clearly defined. Work to make the success metrics easy to understand and in line with your company’s ethical model. Make sure your team knows that the most important goal is to act in accordance with your company’s identity, which I hope is an ethical one. Also make sure that your team knows that you will be demanding more of them than they know they can accomplish and that if they fail in that pursuit but fail trying their best, ethically and with the goal in mind, you simply have to work to help them develop the skills they were missing to get to the goal.

I know this one was a little long-winded, but next time you are on the driving range and you hear a bad golfer explaining to another bad golfer why he is slicing his driver, think about the fallacy of attacking stretch goals and how important the basics are. Just like your grip in golf, having a team that understands the identity of your company, the importance of your ethical model and is empowered to try and stretch without FEAR of failure (when that failure comes after genuine effort) is the way to success.

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