The Inner Game of Goals:
When SMART Goals Don’t Work

Smart-GoalsJust about everyone I encounter my work with organizations is familiar with and has used some version of SMART goals. This is a mnemonic acronym for setting goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time bound

Using the SMART system makes it easier for anyone to stay on track and accomplish key success factors. There are a couple of variants but the idea is that setting specific objectives along with details for completion ensures that goals are realistic, measurable and achievable within a required time frame. When do SMART goals fail? Let’s explore that issue and see if there’s a better way to avoid goal failures.

In my most recent post, I stressed the importance of setting two kinds of goals: 1) Performance goals, and 2) Learning Goals. These focus on two very different yet equally important objectives, both of which are necessary for leaders to stay competent. SMART criterion can be used for both types of goals.

I was curious as to who invented the concept. SMART criteria are commonly attributed to Peter Drucker’s management by objectives concept. The first-known use of the term occurs in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T. Doran (Doran, G. T. (1981). “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives”. Management Review (AMA FORUM) 70 (11): 35–36.)

According to Doran, ideally speaking, each corporate, department, and section objective should be:

  • Specific – target a specific area for improvement.
  • Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  • Assignable – specify who will do it.
  • Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
  • Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

Notice that these criteria don’t say that all objectives must be quantified on all levels of management. In certain situations it is not realistic to attempt quantification, particularly in staff middle-management positions. Practicing managers and corporations can lose the benefit of a more abstract objective in order to gain quantification. It is the combination of the objective and its action plan that is really important. Therefore serious management should focus on these twins and not just the objective. ~ George T. Doran, “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives.”

Who Invented Goals?

A pair of university psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham helped develop the SMART criteria through field experiments. Goal-setting theory (Locke & Latham, 1990, 2002) was developed inductively within industrial/organizational psychology over a 25-year period, based on some 400 laboratory and field studies. These studies showed that specific, high (hard) goals lead to a higher level of task performance than do easy goals or vague, abstract goals such as the exhortation to ‘do one’s best’. So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance.

To fully understand the history of goal setting in large organization, one has to look at GE. In the 1940s GE formalized a goal setting system that became adopted by most corporations. By the 1960s, every GE employee was required to write out their objections for the year in a letter to their manager. And by the 1980s this system evolved into the SMART goals that every division and manager were expected to describe each quarter. The SMART goal system spread throughout corporate America and abroad.

When SMART Goals Get Stupid

The reason the SMART system works is because it forces people to translate vague aspirations into concrete plans. Former GE CEO Jack Welch claims that his insistence on SMART goals was one of the reasons the company’s stock had more than tripled in eight years. But some divisions never seemed to excel or would have irregular results.

Even with everyone writing down detailed, precise and realistic SMART criterion, profit can still fall. The problem is one of human nature: it is so satisfying to complete goals that people will write down trivial goals that are easily accomplished. People become obsessed with achievable but inconsequential goals, and focus on unimportant short-term objectives rather than more ambitious plans.

Workers love the SMART system because it gives them such a powerful sense of accomplishment. But SMART goals can trigger our need for closure in counterproductive ways. Crossing off goals becomes more important than asking if we’re doing the right things.

The SMART Solution

How do you find a way to shake people out of their focus on short-term objectives? The answer is to include stretch goals using SMART criterion. Which is my next post, stay tuned.

In the meantime, I recommend the new Charles Duhigg book, Smarter, Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. He’s the author of The Power of Habit, and is quickly becoming a favorite resource.

What’s been your experience with SMART goals? Do you use them regularly, I mean, actually write out the steps? What about where you work? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

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