Why SMART goals fail

Let me set the stage here by stating that SMART goals are not bad. Their implementation can be questionable though.

For those that have not yet heard the term SMART goals, this is an acronym for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time bound

There’s been a couple of variations over the years, but that’s the generic idea. And it seems like a valid way of tackling things. To a point.

Let’s look at each one of the five aspects.

Specific

When setting up a goal, it must be Specific. That means it must clearly define the intended outcome expected.

The first problem arises right here, from the fact that this is a very granular point in time. Think of a bicycle chain, revolving on the cogs/gears. Put a mark on the chain in one spot, and define that the mark will make it back to the original position. Specific, right?

But this totally ignores the journey. Which gear are you on? What it the path of least resistance? What else will happen on the way there? What if you change gears? What if the chain falls off the gear when changing gears?

Setting a goal is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. SMART goals do not handle the journey, which ignores a big and important part of the goal itself.

Also, along the way, there’s a certain level of emotional input that has an impact. SMART goals are very focused, a mental definition that does not really take into consideration the emotional part of a human being. They are created by the rational side, running amuck from the emotional side.

In addition, when defining a Specific goal, it tends to be very focused. With a very narrow focus, you risk missing everything else around it. You can miss opportunities, you can be too razor-sharp focused, resulting in overall failure and an inability to adapt in an agile way to external factors.

Measurable

The action of measuring success or failure of a goal is, again, as previously mentioned, a very finite point. This applies very well in a vacuum, in a very controlled environment. But us, humans, we do not live in a bubble. We might create bubbles, but even then, we skip from one bubble to another depending on various external factors.

Human nature dictates that, when pursuing a goal, we end up pursuing that goal, to the detriment of other things.

Take for example an organization with a goal set to 20% increase in revenue in the current year. This organization, in trying to achieve this goal, will possibly make decision that will allow the goal to be achieved, but with a negative impact on the long term. The goal is specific, and measurable, but what is the long-term impact?

This opens up an entire chapter on long-term versus short-term goals. Look at organization with a sole purpose or meeting stakeholder growth expectation quarter over quarter. They will put pressure on the teams, reduce staff and come up with other creative ideas to achieve those goals, with no consideration on the impact to their teams and team members well being or future personal and professional development. The end result: good quality resources will leave, resulting in a revolving door situation that in the end will have a negative impact on the organization.

Achievable

A goal needs to be achievable. Otherwise, what’s the point?

When setting up a goal, it might seem achievable on it’s own. But too many goals results in too many focus points, one taking from the importance of another, and creating a storm for number one. Again, we hop from one bubble to another depending on what we do each day or each hour. The morning activity serves one goal, while the evening activity serves another goal. Which takes precedence, and how does one influences the other?

When defining what’s achievable, we need to consider how realistic that is. What might be achievable on it’s own could be non-achievable in conjunction with other goals and activities.

Realistic

Now we take the specificity of the goal, along with how we measure it’s success, and we fit it into a bigger picture. This is about rolling-up or down specific goals through a hierarchy of participants.

Here comes one of the major problems with defining a goal as realistic. This is a point in time evaluation at the time the goal is set, with an assumption of how things will progress over the time-span defined for this goal.

We are humans, and part of human nature is to course-correct at every step of the way. We adapt to the environment, to the needs, to the market, to anything. Just like a river flows, and finds the path of least resistance, we adapt to external factors and course-correct.

During these crazy times, what seemed realistic at the beginning of the year is out the window with the current pandemic. While a little bit of en extreme case, the idea is that things that happen over the duration set for the goal will undoubtedly have an impact on how realistic this goal remains.

Time bound

This is probably the best part of SMART goals, when defined properly. You have a certain period of time to achieve the goal. When the hourglass drops the last grain of sand, we pause to evaluate the results.

The Fail Fast, Succeed Faster paradigm is well known in the entrepreneur world. It deals with short-term goals, and the ability to try something (like creating a minimum viable product – MVP), try it, and if it does not meet expectations drop it in favor of a new initiative.

The goal here is to put a cap in how much you invest into something before you evaluate it and decide if you will continue investment or discard it altogether (sometimes you can re-use  some aspects in your next initiative, it does not have to be a full throw-away).

This is what gives you the ability to course-correct.

In conclusion, SMART goals can be successfully implemented in controlled environments, over a shorter period of time. They are focused on a single unit, like a resource or a team. When created for a team, there should be input from all team members on defining and accepting the goal.

Also, SMART goals rely heavily on assumptions at the starting point. Be ready to fail when the unexpected occurs.

For a better approach to goal setting, especially for an organization, there is an alternative. The CLEAR goals strategy deals with:

  • Collaborative
  • Limited
  • Emotional
  • Appreciable
  • Refinable

We’ll be dealing with CLEAR goals in another article, but until then, definitely look that up.

Have you set SMART goals? Have you failed at SMART goals? What have you learned from the process?

Leave a note below and let me know.

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