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What’s Wrong With…

What’s Wrong with SMART Goals

Create Inspiring Goals That Get Completed and Make a Difference

“SMART” might be the most frequently quoted business mnemonic. The SMART criteria are better than having a poorly defined goal but they have some significant gaps:

  1. Different people interpret them differently.1 (Which is the least of the problems.)
  2. They fail to distinguish why this goal, out of all the relevant goals.2
  3. The criteria are dull, mechanical, and they deaden creativity. Nobody lights up when they hear, “Let’s check it’s SMART.”
  4. Most important, they fail to generate goals that people are motivated to achieve.

The goal of defining a goal is to accomplish something. Sadly, the ‘M’ in SMART doesn’t stand for ‘meaningful’ or ‘motivating.’ That is why such goals often wind up — measurably — not completed. If you want to define a meaningful goal that will inspire you and others to achieve it, there’s a smarter way.

Defining Great Goals

Great goals are worthy, fitting, and crisp. Let’s take a closer look at each:

  • Great Goals Are Worthy
    When you know why something is important, you have a good reason to work on it. A truly worthy goal inspires people to make sacrifices. Deserving goals are seldom found among the low-hanging fruits. It might be a long, tough road. The prospect of the journey will likely not be enticing so it’s all the more important that its goal is. Why else would you bother?

  • Great Goals Are Fitting
    Not every goal that’s crisp and worthy is a suitable goal. It might not be the right time. Or the right way. The goal’s outcome might not fit into the bigger picture of what you’re trying to accomplish. It might be contrary to your values. A great goal will fit the situation and you. Pause and pay attention: What does the situation call for right now?

  • Great Goals Are Crisp
    Make your goal as crisp as you can. Ideas often start abstract and fuzzy. That’s okay. Look harder. Give it a visible outline so it’s clear what’s part of it, and what isn’t. If your mind was a camera, the goal would be sharply in focus; standing out from any distracting busy background. If you won’t get crisply clear about your goal, neither will anyone else.

Is Anything Missing?

But what about ‘measurable’ and ‘achievable’ (or ‘realistic’)? I am not suggesting a goal doesn’t need to be measurable. A crisp goal is measurable by default because it is tangible. Even when I am helping someone with soft skills, we define a way to measure the results beyond a subjective self-evaluation. As for ‘achievable,’ we rarely set unrealistic goals for ourselves. But if you’re proposing a goal for someone else, check that the mantle isn’t too big or too small, and it will fit.

Is There a Real Difference?

But isn’t all this the same as well-interpreted SMART criteria? Before I answer, let me ask you: What do you want when you are defining a goal? If the answer is, to accomplish something of significance, then SMART cannot compare. SMART criteria don’t check whether the goal is actually important. Crucially, they ignore people’s motivation. And motivation is a critical aspect even for highly technical people. We are not robots, and our brains are much less rational than we like to think.

Would adding ‘meaningful’ and ‘important’ fix SMART? Only to a degree. The words themselves matter. They conjure up feelings and ideas. What pops up in your mind when I ask you for a time-bound, measurable and achievable goal? Take a note of it. Now, what can you think of that would be worthy, fitting and crisp? Take a note of it, too. Which one is more important? Which one are you more excited to go work on?

It’s not that SMART is bad. But if you want to take your game to the next level, forego the mnemonic and set yourself a great goal.

  1. The common variations are around achievable, assignable or agreed; and realistic or relevant. 

  2. If your preferred reading of SMART says “realistic,” as it originally had, you might be completely missing out on the goal’s relevancy.