The Tension Created By Stretch Goals

Charlie Munger

It's one thing to set big stretch goals and it's another to acknowledge the tension and incentives that creates within an organization.

Charlie Munger, speaking at the 2000 annual meeting for Wesco Financial, explains:

There are two lines of thought …. A whole bunch of management gurus say you need B-HAGs — bold, hairy, audacious goals. That's a technique of management — to give the troops a goal that looks unattainable and flog them heavily. And according to that line of thought, you will do better chasing a B-HAG than you will a reasonable objective.

And there's some logic in that — because if you tell your kid A-minuses are fine and he likes partying around the beer keg and can easily get A-minuses, you may well get a lower result than you would if you gave him a different goal.

Then there's another group that says that if you make the goals unreasonable enough, human nature being what it is, people will cheat. And you see that in the public schools — where they say you've got to have the reading scores better so we're going to pay the teachers based on the reading scores getting better. So the teachers start helping students cheat to pass the reading tests. So human nature being what it is, if the goals are unreasonable enough, you will cause some cheating in your corporation — or even within your top management.

Each organization has to find its own way.

I can't solve that problem. There are two factors that are at war. You don't want the cheating — which is bad long term and bad for the people who are doing the cheating. However, you do want to maximize the real performance. And the two techniques are at war.

What people generally do is give people the unreasonable goal and tell 'em, “You can't cheat.” That's basically the goal at General Electric. They say, “We don't want any excuses. … But don't cheat. … If you can't handle those two messages, why, perhaps you'd be happier flourishing somewhere else.” That is the American system in many places.

I've got no answer to that tension. Low goals do cause lower performance and high goals increase the percentage of cheating. Each organization has to find its own way.