Capability Insights Consulting



Goals, Magic and Common Sense

Posted on September 7, 2010 at 4:04 PM

Very recently a report on whether SMART goals are dumb came to my inbox (Are Smart Goals Dumb).  This report takes direct aim at the SMART goals that so many managers and organizations lean on. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound.


This way of thinking through goal setting has been around for years. And I use the phrase “managers and organizations lean on” very purposefully. Way too often goal-setting exercises using SMART goals are a crutch. They are used to make managers and organizations feel good about their management prowess and have little to do with setting the organization, teams and individuals up for success.


One Report

In fact the authors of the study in the above report say, “we discovered that people’s goals are not particularly helpful. In fact, our survey found that only 15% of employees strongly agree that their goals will help them achieve great things. And only 13% of employees strongly agree that

their goals this year will help them maximize their full potential.”


They further found that there was no correlation between SMART goals and individuals and teams achieving great things. Now perhaps goal setting isn’t always about the desire to achieve great things but most of the time it is about wanting and needing teams/individuals to achieve very good things! The study found 8 factors that did correlate with the achievement of great things. They are:

  1. I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals.
  2. I will have to learn new skills to achieve my assigned goals for this year.
  3. My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
  4. I actively participated in creating my goals for this year.
  5. I have access to any formal training that I will need to accomplish my goals.
  6. My goals for this year will push me out of my comfort zone.
  7. My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me (customers, the community, etc.).
  8. My goals are aligned with the organization’s top priorities for this year.

One book

What I found startling about this list was the similarity between this list and the findings in the book by Geoffrey Bellman and Kathleen Ryan, “Extraordinary Groups: How Ordinary Teams Achieve Amazing Results”. Bellman and Ryan list several things that extraordinary groups exhibit:

  1. A compelling purpose that inspires and stretches members to make the group and its work a top priority.
  2. Shared leadership that encourages members to take mutual responsibility for helping the team be successful.
  3. Just-enough structure to create confidence to move forward, but not so much as to become bureaucratic or burdensome.
  4. Full engagement that results in all members jumping in with enthusiasm, sometimes passionately and chaotically regardless of role.
  5. Embracing differences so that group members see, value, and use their diversity as a strength.
  6. Unexpected learning that translates into personal and group growth.
  7. Strengthened relationships among members characterized by trust, collegiality, and friendship.
  8. Great results, tangible and intangible.

The book has a great model on aspects of self, group and world (whatever the group`s definition of world is) that lays out what is needed in those 3 dimensions to affect transformation and create the environment for teams to achieve greatness.


A Little Magic

I’m always fascinated when researchers and experts arrive at similar places from different paths. In this case, both the report and book also ring my emotional bells. I have been on OK, good and great teams and was able to very quickly relate to what the report and book cover. The two lists are not identical as one is about goals and the other about aspects of high-achieving teams. Yet a few things pop out for me as I go through both lists:

  • A compelling purpose helps me imagine and vividly picture what it will feel like when I achieve my goals.
  • When I can see that my goals are aligned with the organization`s top priorities it helps create a compelling purpose and helps me want to make this work my top priority.
  • For me to be fully engaged I need to participate in creating my goals and share leadership in the group.
  • The compelling purpose must help me see how my goals will enrich the lives of others beyond me. Conversely, when the work will enrich the lives of others it contributes to the compelling purpose.
  • To achieve great results I need to learn, to be pushed beyond my comfort zone; I must achieve personal growth.

Both are really talking about tapping into the individual`s and team`s heart, not just head. The book talks about the magic that seems to happen when a team transforms itself and its result into something great. Having been there it does indeed feel like magic and sticks as a defining set of memories that I constantly seek to replicate.


And Some Common Sense (The Hard Part!)

Of course, not too many organizations are ready to manage by magic! Neither the report nor book authors suggest that either. The report outlines a different way of approaching goal setting (HARD: heartfelt, animated, required and difficult) and the book has many good suggestions for creating the best team environment possible.


But in spite of my concern about how SMART is implemented, I`m not ready to throw out SMART goals just yet. As the saying goes, let`s not throw out the baby with the bath water.


The concept of SMART is not all wrong:

  • Some level of specificity is needed. Look at number 3 on the report`s list. If you can say that meeting the goal is an absolute necessity for the organization you can probably specify it to some degree. The compelling purpose (point 1 on the book`s list) very likely contains some statements that will help derive some specific goals.
  • Having only goals that cannot be measured in any way won`t help with motivation or help sustain the groups energy. Number 7 on the report`s list (My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me) and number 8 on the book`s list (Great results, tangible and intangible) both speak to some level of measurement, sometimes. I will say though that not every goal needs to be measurable in a specific timeframe. The individual or team may have a goal of their work having a positive impact on customers for years to come. That can be made more specific by talking about the kinds of impact but those impacts may simply not be measureable in any reasonable timeframe. Allowing some room for intangible results gives individuals and teams room to expand and grow beyond what you – or they – can imagine right now.
  • Both lists clearly show that individuals must move out of their comfort zone and individuals and teams must learn something in order for great things to happen. Goals that are easily achievable and completely realistic today will not help! But, I`d argue that goals that are truly unachievable or unrealistic are simply de-motivators and can stop a team or individual cold. Individuals and teams must be part of the goal setting exercise and goal-setting cannot be something that is done once at the beginning of the year or the beginning of a project and cast in stone. As learning happens and as the individual or team is better able to assess the evolving reality and likely impact of their work, the goals should grow with them.
  • Having some goals that are achieved within a set timeframe can help the individual or team have a real sense of progress. Having these should be part of every goal-setting exercise. But insisting on a set timeframe for every goal is limiting the potential of the individual or team.

In the end, what is wrong is a slavish following of SMART as an annual or team start-up thing to do vs. recognizing that setting goals is one component of the larger picture; or saying that every goal must meet the SMART rule vs. allowing room for some goals that allow the magic back into the work.


Since the vast majority of work today gets done by teams, setting goals independent of setting a good team environment will not net us the results we need for the organization. I understand the desire for models and rules to help us manage and lead. But leading and managing is about using those models and rules intelligently, in context and with an understanding that they are never the be all and end all.


I won`t throw out SMART goals. I think they can live alongside HARD goals. And I will attempt to remember the purpose of goal setting is not so I end up with a list of things I can manage against but rather about one of the things I do with individuals and teams to enable them get the results the organization needs. There are no shortcuts!




Categories: leadership, project management

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