Driving hard at stretch goals

A couple of months ago, I was driving to Banff to meet some friends in a rig we call the Scoutmobile. About an hour into the drive, the engine’s temperature started heading into risky territory. I was in an area where there was very little room to pull over, so I started looking for a safe, roomy place to get off the road. In management-speak, this would be a stretch goal.

While searching for a place to stop, I used common engine overheating delay tactics: turn on the heat, slow down, etc. I had a simmering suspicion that a blown head gasket was coming home to roost. This rig had close to 300K miles on it, so this wasn’t an outlandish possibility. As this suspicion moved toward reality, it was obvious that simple overheating delay tactics wouldn’t help for long. I needed to stop.

Stretch goals and context

Getting to a safe, roomy stopping place became a new and much smaller stretch goal because the context changed. Frankly, making the 400 mile drive to Banff and getting back without mechanical trouble was really the stretch goal. Given the rig’s mileage and concern about the head gasket, I had wondered for months if it would survive the trip.

Once the engine temperature started rising, my decision making context changed. Meeting friends in Banff was off the table. Finding an ideal place to pull over became the stretch goal. Getting off the road was possible, but not quickly. Leaving the road in a nice wide spot so I wouldn’t cause traffic issues became the stretch goal. 

As I finally rolled into a safe spot out of traffic, the engine lost the little remaining power it had and locked up. The first time it stranded me in 17 years turned out to be our last drive together. While I made the stretch goal even in the altered context, even that seemingly tiny stretch goal was too much for the situation. That’s the lesson here – attention to changing context is critical.

Stretch goals aren’t the problem

I don’t mean to say that stretch goals are bad. They aren’t, but context is critical. When my trip’s decision making context changed, so did my goals for the day. Looking back, it’s possible that stopping immediately would have prevented the locked up motor. I didn’t want to partially block a lane on a two lane highway. That as my justification to push a little bit further – a stretch goal. 

When you decide on stretch goals, be sure you aren’t going to drive your team too long at “redline”. Redline (in automotive terms) is the maximum speed at which an engine and its components are designed to operate without causing damage to the engine.

Making your monthly sales goal in three weeks is a classic time to give your team a stretch goal for the month. Adding requirements to the final days of a project that’s already behind will all but guarantee late delivery. Likewise, shrinking a timeline they’re already likely to miss is a good way to sour a hard-fought win.

Race drivers will repeatedly push a race car’s engine to or a bit beyond redline because that’s when they get the most from their engine. Thing is, they won’t do it for long. Pretty soon, they’ll shift or brake. They know redline is there for a reason and pushing the engine beyond normal operating limits for too long will end badly.

Running at redline

Prolonged running at redline has similar effects on people. Someone can work a couple of 80 to 100 hour weeks under near-term deadline conditions and some will do so willingly if they believe in the goal. 

Where this goes bad is when it becomes “normal” to work like this. Do this and some (probably all) aspects of their lives will suffer. They’ll not have (or make) time for family, or taking care of themselves. Eating and exercise habits will suffer. They’ll have less (or no) time for friends, the dog, yard, car, hobbies, etc. Rest will suffer, so their ability to focus, concentrate and show patience will be affected. Burning bridges at home combined with a drop in work quality / output can permanently create morale / attitude problems. 

Sometimes limits really are limits. Exceed them too often for too long and you’ll damage engines, people, relationships and before long, your company.