Why SMART Goals Are Sometimes Dumb

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Why SMART Goals Are Sometimes Dumb

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If you’ve ever been to a leadership workshop or time-management seminar, chances are you’ve heard all about goal setting. And along with goal setting comes the sacred cow of today’s work culture: SMART goals!

To review, a SMART goal is a goal that isSpecific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. Isn’t it lovely how that spells “SMART”?

Here’s the bad news: SMART goal setting sounds good in theory and is touted by experts everywhere as the best practice framework for goal setting, but the reality is, you’ve been duped. SMART can make you do dumb things. And why is that?

SMART goals encourage you to focus on activities rather than outcomes.

When you make SMART goals, you are concentrating on a particular outcome that you desire. Perhaps the goal is to boost sales by 10%. Perhaps it’s to bring on three additional workers. Perhaps it’s to land that significant client on which you’ve been working for months. All OK, but how does this objective fit into your organization’s overarching mission?

Here’s another illustration that could be a little more entertaining.

What would you ask if you heard, “Everyone meet me at 9:00am tomorrow morning – we’re going on vacation!” It goes without saying that you must be aware of your destination in order to carry out the necessary tasks and pack the appropriate gear for a successful trip.

Here’s how you might get ready for “vacation” using the SMART goals framework: Imagine you’re in a Logistics department. Let’s create your SMART goal around “packing for vacation.” 

  • Specific: I will pack (shorts, t-shirts, swim suit, sunscreen and flip-flops)
  • Measurable: I will pack in a 24” suitcase, less than 50 lbs
  • Achievable: I have the means and ability to accomplish this task
  • Relevant: We’re going on a trip so this is an important activity: packing
  • Timely: I will have my task completed by 10pm tonight so I’m ready for action!

Now you feel as if you’ve successfully achieved your SMART goal — that is, if Hawaii is the destination or outcome. But you lose because the destination is Vail, Colorado to snowboard. You’ve packed the wrong things! Now your performance in Vail is sub-par. You’re busy running around shopping for warm clothes, snowboard equipment and the like. You’ve also wasted a whole suitcase on beach clothes, so you now have to buy another suitcase to carry your new purchases.

Now you’re wasting time AND resources.

Even though you established a “reasonable” set of SMART goals — that were even aligned with the outcome of vacation — you weren’t crystal clear about the outcome. Leaving out one small piece (the destination) resulted in an experience that put you at the bottom of the heap. Nevertheless, you worked just as hard and met every one of your SMART goals!

Wow. Now just imagine this happening all over your organization. Say 10, 100, 500, 5,000 people on teams doing lots of activities (working hard!) that may or may not be heading in the right direction. But they’ve achieved their SMART goals! Check!

So how do we get everyone on the same page and point toward a common destination?

We do it by shifting our focus to outcome-based goals. By focusing on outcomes (i.e. destinations) first, we get everyone on the time aligned toward a common goal first.

Ask yourself: does everyone on your team or in your organization know what ultimate outcome you are trying to achieve? You probably won’t find it in the vision or mission statement – which shouldn’t come as a surprise, since that’s what the people at the top probably handed down.

Outcome-based goal-setting gets everyone aligned first. This way, creating measurable results is effective and achievable. This framework is outcome-based thinking, and generates an environment where performance is managed on a continuous basis. That means all the time, not just at the yearly performance review meeting.

So next time someone tells you that you need to be setting SMART goals, take a step back and make sure you start with the right destination. Otherwise you might end up on the beautiful slopes of Colorado with nothing but shorts and t-shirts in your suitcase!

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  1. Jody, I’d honestly never thought about SMART goals this way… but you’re right.

    The challenge is that having an outcome based approach to goal setting is by definition more difficult since it requires alignment across the senior leadership in a department (or even the organization), a clear communication of the goal and the buy-in from middle management (to effectively engage individual contributors).

    With that said, I love your thinking here. This approach certainly requires more effort, however, and this is unfortunately probably part of the reason more organizations don’t do things this way.

    Thanks for sharing, and keep writing.



  2. Rory – you’re exactly right – it does require a bunch more effort, but as you can see, it’s vitally important. When we go into organizations to do training, it’s always baffling to us how confused everyone really is. The focus is making sure everyone shows up on time and puts in their required 40 hours. But that doesn’t ensure that work is actually being accomplished. We often say S.M.A.R.T. can more accurately be described as Senseless Minutia Against Random Tasks, unless effectively tied to the outcome of the organization.

  3. Jody,
    I suppose I can see your point, but I don’t like your premise that people create SMART goals without having the organizational objectives in mind. At our company we lay out our strategic plan and organizational goals to everyone in the company and then ask them to create their SMART goals to contribute to acheiving that objective. I don’t think its the structure of the SMART goals that is the problem, but that some companies do not give the overall corporate and department objectives from which to create them. Focus on the outcome and attain it through the activities.

  4. Exactly, Brenna! I wish more organizations were aligned like yours. What we find more often than not, is that SMART goals are not tied to the overall objective, or even worse, the overall objective is in place but nobody can figure out how to tie into it. Crazy!

  5. Jody,
    I agree with Brenna. One more thing, the relevant in SMART is about making sure your objectives are aligned with the company strategic goals. When training our managers on setting SMART objectives we make sure that they ask themselves “how does achieving this objective, help my company.”

  6. You have a point re outcomes, but your example strips your credibility to the bone, as it treats people like fools.

    The SMART meme, like many others, works really well for most people. If you want to tack on some sort of corollary idea, pay due respect to the many people who have learned from SMART, and don’t diss us.

  7. Thanks Jody for this interesting article.
    I wholeheartedly agree that all goal activities have to be linked to an intended outcome in order for them to be meaningful and effective. Indeed, the need for the goal-setting to be outcome-based is already integral within the mnemonic ‘SMART’, when it is used properly. In all cases, the desired outcomes should be referred to, or at least considered, in both the ‘specific’ and the ‘relevant’ elements. Anyone who does not include outcome-based considerations is just doing a disservice to the value and importance of the use of SMART principles and instead being too simplistic in its application.

    1. Colin – I hear ya loud and clear. I’ve yet to find an example of SMART utilized with the overall outcome of the organization considered. It’s frustrating! And remember, I grew up in the bowels of corporate America so I know of what I speak 🙂

  8. I do find it peculiar that some people still over think the whole process of finding employment. We seem to be expected to do a lot more to get to where we need to be, but keeping up to date with the pros and cons and so forth can certainly be of some help.I agree that having a team that shares the same goal can be beneficial on various levels, and the time you have should be spent wisely. We need more posts like this on the web!

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