I once saw a Dilbert cartoon with the following line: “Stretch goals are like stretch pants, they’re a sign you’ve given up hope.”

I thought about that cartoon when Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, first made his commitment to a deadline of 31 October for the UK to leave the EU. He said that he would rather die in a ditch than wait any longer. It was 31 October or bust; no ifs, no buts.

But – it isn’t going to happen.

Mr. Johnson’s goal was always a stretch and, given the numbers in the House of Commons, past discussions with the EU and Mr. Johnson’s own relationship with many MPs in his own party, was possibly a sign that he’d given up hope.

I’m a big fan of setting goals. When I work with my clients on strategy, one of the first discussions we tend to have is focused on articulating their #1 strategic goal. A clear, challenging goal creates focus, energy and alignment.

At Topps Tiles, for instance, our first strategy conversation led to a goal of growing the company’s market share of the UK retail tile market from 25% to 33%. As a result, the executive team took the decision to remove non-tile flooring from their stores, accelerating NPD, improving the offer to traders and improving the in-store experience. The goal was achieved within four years.

The key to setting an effective stretch goal is that, while challenging, it should be achievable. Your business should have the necessary capabilities and capacity to pull it off. Topps’ share was already increasing and the company could see that, given the problems of some competitors, a 33% goal was probably achievable.

Even JFK’s moonshot declaration in 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade was based on detailed NASA analysis that the goal could be delivered.

Of course, Mr. Johnson’s commitment to an almost impossible deadline may provide him with other political benefits. But, for the rest of us, the key to setting an effective, ambitious goal is to understand how you will deliver it.

Off The Record: Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart by Nick Lowe

This song, written by Norman Bergen and Shelly Coburn in 1964, is not well-known but is beautiful. I first came across it on one of Nick Lowe’s albums, but it has been covered by artists including Tom Jones and Sly and Robbie and sampled by Wyclef Jean.

Why do I keep on fooling myself,

When I know you love somebody else?

Only a fool breaks his own heart

© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.