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    Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg Has A Strategy That Will Work In Both Good Times And Bad

    When confronting an extremely challenging task, the employees of recent winners are more likely to see an opportunity, systematically search for and process information, exhibit optimism, and demonstrate strategic flexibility. Companies experiencing weak results, however, are not well positioned. Their employees are more likely to see a stretch goal as a threat, grasp for externally sourced quick fixes, exhibit fear or defensiveness, and launch new initiatives in a chaotic and ultimately self-defeating fashion.

    The effects of recent performance are often seen in sports, where exceptionally difficult contests are viewed in an entirely different light when athletes and teams have been doing well rather than poorly.


    In a baseball game, for instance, players who are at bat are more likely to see opportunity if their recent turns at the plate have produced hits rather than strikeouts. The same thing happens in the corporate world. Though its customer was demanding unheard-of cost points and precision levels, Nypro had just pulled off a couple of challenging projects, such as developing a revolutionary process for producing Swiftach, a price-tag attachment system now used by almost all major retailers.

    So the staffers felt a sense of opportunity and determination rather than worry over possible failure. A great deal of other anecdotal evidence from sports, business, and government, as well as systematic evidence from the fields of psychology and organizational science, suggests that organizations should take bold, risky actions when they are strong rather than weak. That may sound intuitive, but our research indicates that it is not obvious to most organizations.

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    The second and even more critical factor is the availability of resources in an organization. It can help organizations search broadly for ideas, experiment with them, and remain committed in the face of setbacks. Well-resourced organizations are better positioned to absorb failures that come with trying a variety of new ideas—not just because they have funds to move forward but also because they have emotional reservoirs that increase their resilience.

    On the other hand, in organizations that are strapped, managers have a harder time conducting and sustaining experiments and may jump at Band-Aid approaches that rarely succeed and are hard to learn from. Extra resources give organizations the freedom to try various tacks, including parallel initiatives in different groups and units. The team tried out 80 hybrid technologies before narrowing the list to four and then settling on a final choice. By examining recent performance and resources, executives can assess how feasible stretch goals are for their organizations. We have developed an analytical framework to help them do this.

    It breaks all organizations down into four distinct categories on the basis of where they stand on these two factors. Understanding which category their company falls into will give managers insight into whether they ought to try for a long shot. Opel, the European carmaker, is a vivid example. Meanwhile its limited resources allowed little margin for error. Even so, that year the company predictably adopted a stretch goal—a return to the black in only two years. Despite some advances, Opel did not even come close to meeting that target, and its failure just served to deepen its morale problems.

    For those rooted in the proud Opel tradition dating back to the s, it was a very difficult period.

    Has the Time Come for “Stretch” in Management?

    Unfortunately, the organizations most poorly positioned to succeed with the use of stretch goals—those without recent success and slack resources—are, paradoxically, the ones that are most likely to pursue them. When choosing between bold action and playing it safe, firms that are struggling usually favor the aggressive path, as studies of railroads, radio broadcasters, and many other industries have shown. We call these organizations failing but grasping.

    With disappointing track records and resource constraints, they lack the capability, momentum, and resilience needed to pursue stretch goals. Our framework clearly suggests that organizations with strong recent performance and slack resources are in the best position to benefit from stretch goals. Yet such organizations are unlikely to reach for the seemingly impossible, because success tends to create risk aversion.

    If things are going really well, why undertake bold action or change? Why not stick with what has been working? Similarly, organizations with ample resources tend to become conservative because they want to preserve their gains. Complacency has caused many firms to stumble and even die, particularly in the face of disruptive technologies and business models.

    Blockbuster, Digital Equipment, Kodak, Smith Corona, Wang, and Woolworth are among the many companies that were once well positioned to make leaps but instead rested on their laurels, even in the face of strong challenges from new entrants. On rare occasions, however, successful and well-resourced organizations have recognized the need to explore dramatic changes by setting stretch goals.

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    DaVita, which provides kidney care and manages and operates independent medical groups, exemplifies this ideal. In it was in a very strong position, with growing revenues, profits, and working capital. In fact, we had no idea if it was even possible. More important, patient hospitalization rates and employee satisfaction had both improved significantly. The Pioneer Team could get unfettered access to several dozen operating units such as clinics for testing new ideas because those units had the capacity to absorb the disruption of experiments.

    Pursuing stretch goals at your peak actually may be the best way to stay on top—but only if the complacency of success can be overcome.

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    One tactic for doing that is to frame the situation in terms of potential losses, emphasizing what could happen if the organization stands still while others are on the move. That works because people feel losses much more intensely than gains. CEO Kenneth Frazier demonstrated an understanding of this when urging the executives at Merck to come up with radical competitor-trouncing innovations. This focused them on what they had to lose.

    Then he asked them to put their Merck hats back on and address those challenges. It worked: Complacency melted away, and the managers eagerly embraced their new stretch targets. What if your organization is neither flush and successful nor floundering and strapped? That means it falls into one of the two other categories in our framework: confident but constrained recently successful but tight on resources or discouraged but capable recently unsuccessful but resource-rich. Are stretch goals completely off the table for such organizations? Not necessarily. Our guidance for them—as well as for organizations in the failing but grasping category—is to take small steps rather than big, audacious leaps.

    Our research suggests three approaches, which can help companies lay the groundwork for effective use of stretch goals down the line. With confidence inside the firm at a low ebb and disagreements over how to proceed at a high, she decided to initially concentrate on simple goals in the areas of client security, better everyday work practices, and financial discipline. Beers then leveraged success with those modest goals to return the firm to its former glory.

    By its very nature, a stretch goal requires novel approaches. Because the path to it is uncertain, organizations cannot map out a series of simple, intermediate milestones. Small wins work by building momentum, energy, and resources, and fostering learning that will allow a firm to take on bigger, more ambitious goals later.

    Strategies for this include spinning off inefficient, resource-consuming units and pursuing a potential merger or alliance with a better-endowed partner. Floating equity or debt could be expensive, but its feasibility also should be examined. Another way to build slack is to focus on learning that will enhance existing resources. Because learning goals target knowledge and capability generation rather than near-term upgrades to performance, they can feel less threatening.

    These goals, however, can helpfully leverage untapped expertise and skills that might, in turn, result in better performance downstream. Coca-Cola provides a good example of how small steps can eventually lead to the successful use of stretch goals. How did it hit—and actually exceed—its goal so quickly? But rather than immediately announcing a PR-driven strategy to try to overcome its stumble, Coke spent three years building resources and infrastructure and testing options and learning from trial and error. Only when it had a string of incremental successes under its belt did it launch the stretch goal effort, which led to an early and dramatic success.

    If you have ample resources but have not been successful of late—and fall into the discouraged but capable category—you can hunker down, hoard your money, and hope the bad times will pass. Or you might feel driven to take undue risks to prove yourself.