It’s demoralizing when you can’t seem to hit your targets — even if your company’s still making money.

In some companies, the compulsion to commit to stretch goals, unprecedented innovation, or drastic and immediate turnaround is too strong; the desire to gain ground quickly can blind decision-makers to practical realities. That’s particularly true after seeing a competitor succeed mightily, or after a string of lapses and failures.

Are you planning a new venture without subject matter experts or deep bench strength? Are you plowing ahead despite (or because of) a recent lack of success in the Old Faithfuls of your business? Worst case: Are you targeting growth in your base while experimenting with something new — and counting on optimal results simultaneously? That’s definitely a triple-threat scenario.

Assessing Real Costs

The true costs of meeting stretch goals are often unanalyzed or under-assessed. Identifying the real costs of your plan includes not just the costs of the staff and materials you need in the normal course, but the intangible opportunity costs such as the extra drain of heroics, overtime, excessive stress, and the politics and other dicey behaviors that can occur when everyone’s under duress.

If your leadership isn’t willing to commit enough resources to ensure the likelihood of success, or if it has stipulated that personal commitment and increased effort will be enough to close the gap between where your organization is and where it ought to be, then the chances of falling short become significantly greater.

Meeting Goals Can Be A Double-Edged Sword

Make sure you’re not making commitments at a high and conceptual level without sufficient knowledge of what it really takes to execute the plan. Sometimes people agree to plans because they don’t want to appear negative or oppositional; sometimes people agree because they haven’t applied enough rigorous analysis to know that the effort is foolhardy.

Initiatives that, by rights, should have blown up and failed altogether can look successful if their sponsors assign them extra or unplanned resources, often to the detriment of other initiatives. And in too many organizations, less-than-perfect success is punished even if perfect success was never part of the original commitment, as when sponsors edit out their team’s carefully worded assumptions and caveats, so that the plan reads “We are going to accomplish X” instead of the more realistic “We are going to attempt an initial trial of X under the following conditions.”

Goal-Stretching Exercises

To be successful at setting and implementing stretch goals, it’s crucial to get real team buy-in for the conceptual effort, and alignment around the specific targets and their concrete, operational implications.

It can be difficult for a team to review aggressive growth or development targets and see their next steps forward. Sometimes you have to work backwards from the desired result in a phase-by-phase process to understand the pragmatic resource-planning, cost management, and general coordination that’s necessary. But if find that you’ve missed your targets more than once, it makes sense to start at the beginning and check both your calculations and your underlying assumptions.