Friday, March 9, 2012

SMART v. 3.0, Almost Impossible Goals

There are times, many times, that setting an Almost Impossible Goal – a goal that you think only has a 1% chance of being accomplished – can be the SMART thing to do.

Let’s quickly recap my recent SMART blogs.  First, all goals should be Specific, Measurable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.  The question is, “What ‘A’ do you use to fill out the formula?”

Attainable Goals are those which you think you have at least an 80% chance of accomplishing.  This is a good approach to use when accurately predicting performance is the priority.

Aggressive Goals are those which you think you have a 35% chance of accomplishing.  This is a good approach to use when your priority is improving performance.  This approach leverages one of the important findings from goal research:

The more difficult the goal, the higher the level of performance.*

But today, improved performance is not enough, especially for a lot of nonprofits who want to make HUGE improvements in the quality of life for those they serve.  For individuals and organizations who want innovation and breakthrough performance, this is the time to set Almost Impossible Stretch Goals.  By definition, an Almost Impossible Stretch Goal is one that you think has only a 1% chance of being accomplished and you don’t know how to do it.

As you consider this approach, remember one of my favorite quotes:

Great Leaders Have a Healthy Disregard for the Impossible**

How many things can you think of which people said were impossible and yet they happened?

*People told Roger Bannister that it was impossible to run a mile faster than in four minutes.  But he set the goal.  Not so impossible after all.

*If you told someone twenty-five years ago that many of us today would be carrying around a small device that we could make wireless phone calls from, listen to more than 8,000 songs we had recorded on it, and access The Internet, they would have said “impossible.”  Then they would have asked what The Internet is.  But people set goals to invent these things.  Not so impossible after all.

*In 1961 when President Kennedy set the goal for the USA to land a man on the moon and safely return him, many experts gave lots of scientific reasons for why it was impossible.  But he set the goal anyway.  Not so impossible after all.

You can think of many more examples.  The point is that throughout history, people have dreamed dreams that others said were “impossible.”  But they set their Almost Impossible Goals and the dreams came true.

What are your dreams?  What inspires you?  What goals, if you achieved them, would make a breakthrough difference for you or for those your organization serves?

Almost Impossible Goals ignite our creativity.  Since, by definition, we set the goal so big that our current methods of going about them will not work, our creativity automatically kicks in to start thinking of new ways of achieving the goal.

In 1994, when Jack Welch was CEO of General Electric, he commented on GE’s use of the Almost Impossible Stretch:

“stretch is a concept that would have produced smirks, if not laughter, in the GE of three or four years ago, because it essentially means using dreams to set business targets -- with no real idea of how to get there . . . if you do know how to get there then it is not a stretch target.”
“In a company that now rewards progress toward stretch goals, rather than punishing shortfalls, the setting of these goals, and quantum leaps toward them, are daily events”
And these targets “are making seemingly impossible goals exciting, bringing out the best from our teams.”***

Remember:  the idea with the Almost Impossible Stretch Goal is to create a new way of going about the accomplishment of the goal – to inspire creativity, not to make you work twice as many hours using the same methods as before.

Intrigued?  Play around with setting some Almost Impossible Goals and see if you generate some new creative ideas.  But be careful about sharing your crazy new goals with too many people.  Remember that most people only set "Attainable" goals and they think this "Almost Impossible" stuff is irresponsible!  No wonder innovation is so rare.

There’s a ton more I could say about Almost Impossible Goals, but this blog is already too long.  Stay tuned for more tips next time on how to use Almost Impossible Goals to produce innovation and breakthrough performance in your organization.  If you can’t wait until the next blog to learn more, then download my Mission Impact book from Amazon onto your Kindle and read Chapter Five.  Downloading a book from The Internet?  Not so impossible.

*Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P.  A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1990.

**Thanks to Gene Hoffman for sharing this gem with me

***The Wall Street Journal, March 8, 1994.
For more ideas on how you can lead breakthroughs in your organization, follow this blog and check out my web site at   You will find free resources you can download, including a Breakthrough Strategy Workbook that you can download at no cost.  You can also check out my book, Mission Impact:  Breakthrough Strategies for Nonprofits, and buy it if you are interested.  And you can follow Sheehan Nonprofit Consulting on Facebook.


  1. Impossible is an excuse for lame ducks!

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  3. This is ignorant, short term thinking. It's almost always those who leave at 4PM in the afternoon and spend the week preparing to discuss schedules for the meetings they will have (rather than doing their $#@#! job) who set the "stretch goal" that requires teams to constantly work above and beyond (all night, weekends, holidays) to reach them. Walk out before they fire you for not providing your own bed at work.