Smart Goals Aren’t Always So Smart

I remember my first strategic planning process like it was yesterday.  The direction I got from my manager was:

  1. Start a planning process
  2. Get your group to agree on a vision
  3. Create SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely)
  4. Identify the action you’ll take to achieve the goals
  5. End with consensus

I had been worried, dreading the need to develop a strategic plan.  But, in what my manager shared with me I found hope.  It seemed easy enough and it was.  And after that first plan was done. . .I felt comfortable.  There was even a satisfaction that accomplishing the plan’s goals wouldn’t be too hard.

Fast forward to today.  I have a very different perspective on what embodies “SMART” goals.

It’s time to create ambitious goals, not attainable goals

Why?  Because when an organization puts together a plan with “attainable” goals, it often artificially limits what the organization can accomplish.  Attainable sets the tone by saying goals should be “within reach” or “achievable” which stands in contrast to the intensity typically associated with the vision an organization first establishes at the outset of the strategic planning process.

Attainable is the small fish sitting in a river waiting for food to be carried to it.  Is it strategic?  Sure. . .  Is it certain?  Yes. . .  But is the fish achieving more than basic survival?  No. . .

Attainable is the small fish sitting in a river waiting for food to be carried to it.  Is it strategic?  Sure, the fish has chosen to save energy and capitalize on what can be seen.  Is it certain?  Yes, inevitably food will come downstream.  But is the fish achieving more than basic survival?  No, the fish isn’t taking any risk to find a better source of food and pursue its vision of being the “big fish” someday.

The alternative goals are those that are ambitious.  Meaning they require greater effort and ability to be successful, but nonetheless can still be successful.

The bottom line is this: focusing on attainable goals is still a strategic decision, but its a strategy that focuses on accomplishing obvious outcomes that would be nearly impossible not to reach.  That’s great news for the individuals charged with being responsible for implementation.  However, its bad new for growth.

It’s time to stop being ‘real’ and start being ‘transformative’

Judging goals on a criteria of “realistic” also artificially limits what can be accomplished.  Because the opposite of reality is fantasy.  And fantasies are categorized in our minds as wishes and falsehoods, making the use of imagination a bad thing.  As soon as someone says, “the reality is that this will be difficult. . .” in a strategy session, a group will navigate away from talking about ambitious goals that require more intense analysis and resources.

Viewing strategy and goal setting through the lens of  reality therefore becomes an opportunity to back down from a challenge.  In fact it’s the last opportunity to make a U-turn in the planning process and return to a place of comfort.

So what does a more successful approach look like?

In a strategy session with a board of directors that were also the organizations main investors, I asked, “What would make you feel better as a director and investor.  An organization that hits every goal as if running up the score or one that fails to accomplish every goal but accomplishes something that is transformative?”

The answer was clear to those directors.  The purpose of the organization was to be transformative and impactful.  In that context they had to redefine what success would look like as they developed their plan.   Success couldn’t be about measuring and accomplishing every goal in the plan.  Instead, it had to be about realizing their vision to be something different down the road.

To make that happen, being ‘realistic’ meant having a discussion about risks, resources and a range of results as opposed to dismissing an aggressive, ambitious goal as being a fantasy because it’s cutting edge, innovative or imaginative.

Redefining S.M.A.R.T. Goals

If I were to redefine S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely) goals, here’s what it would look like:

S – Straightforward (understandable; unambiguous; plain-spoken)

– Maturity (due date; time when fully developed; period in which obligation to perform has come due)

A – Ambitious (aggressive; requiring greater effort and ability)

R – Recognizable (easily identified by those responsible for outcomes)

T – Transformative (a discernible change; something different than the present)

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