General Electric pioneered a system of goal-setting in the 1940s, in which employees developed their own specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals which became a contract for performance. In most cases, this dramatically improved work performance. But some units were setting goals that were trivial or short-sighted; they met the SMART criteria but weren’t contributing to the bottom line of the company. Consequently, GE developed the concept of brainstorming “stretch goals,” in which the emphasis wasn’t on being easily achievable, but on inspiring innovation and meaning.
Your stretch goals should ideally start from longer-term, overarching life purposes and principles. From that broad perspective, you can narrow the focus of your goals, step-by-step, to the more specific SMART goals that you use to manage day-to-day behavior. Elon Musk’s well-known goal of making it to Mars is a significant stretch goal, which is supported by the incremental SMART goals of rocket development.
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