Leadership Matters: When to Abandon SMART Goals

January 2018: Vol. 41 No 1
Lei Wang
6 reasons why SMART goal-setting doesn’t work
Hiker at summit of mountain in the foreground, looking toward an even higher mountain peak in the background

You’re probably familiar with the concept of SMART goals. SMART is commonly defined as specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. When addressing each initial of SMART goals, the anticipated result is a clearly-defined direction for employees and a well-set timeline to overcome procrastination and motivate employees to stay on track.
It’s easy to see how you could expect SMART goals to work when you are trying to reach a concrete target in a steady-state situation, where progress is within your control. Under those circumstances, they are great for providing short-term direction.
But when should you abandon them? 

It is dangerous to apply SMART goals blindly to every pursuit. For people with big dreams of venturing into new territories or organizations that want to truly achieve greatness, especially in a dynamic environment, SMART goals are often inadequate and sometimes detrimental.

To avoid such mistakes in applying SMART goals, it is helpful to know where and why they do not work. Here are six primary pitfalls:

1. Focusing Too Narrowly on a SMART Goal 

It is easy to fall into the trap of fixating on a single SMART goal, seeing it as the only objective. Instead, look at the SMART goal in the context of the competing and contributing objectives, which will likely influence your actions in reaching your goal.

2. Using SMART Goals to Measure Success and Failure 

SMART goals need to be specific and measurable so you can objectively evaluate whether you have reached the goal. This is an effective way to manage progress when working in a controlled environment. However, if you apply the same criteria to measure success or failure, it can motivate people in the wrong way. 

When success is measured only by a SMART goal, people end up pursuing that narrowly defined target, letting it take over their identity. Failure to meet a SMART goal can make employees feel as though their efforts are meaningless. They only see losses, unable to appreciate related growth or accomplishments.

3. Sacrificing Long-Term Success for a Short-Term SMART Goal 

Turn to any business or market news channel, and you will hear about stock prices rising or falling because a company beat or missed its quarterly earnings target or market expectations. To an outsider, earnings appear to be the most prominent metric for a company’s performance. Because of the likely severe market reaction to a miss, firms commonly take extreme measures to meet earnings projections, even if it means sacrificing long-term growth or manipulating their accounting.

Such companies operate as if the world ends every 90 days. They put meeting the quarterly SMART goals set by Wall Street at higher priority than their customers and their long-term success. Eventually, that strategy will be fatal for business. 

4. Giving Up Too Soon (The All-or-Nothing Approach)

A SMART goal can be discouraging. Have you ever heard yourself saying, “I don’t have time,” when excusing yourself for not doing what you had planned for that day? Time management is one of the most popular applications of SMART goals. SMART goals are viewed as a complete entity, all-or-nothing, and when you are unable to do everything as planned, you can become discouraged and give up the entire goal. 

When a SMART goal is your sole focus, it often becomes a negative incentive—you can lose sight of the achievements and fulfillment of the journey. 

5. Failing to Realize One’s Full Potential 

There are plenty of examples of smart people starting a company based on a great idea or product. They work hard to bring their dream product to life or to take the company from private to a public offering to attract investment money. But once they reach their SMART goal, they relax and the company’s growth curve dramatically flattens. They could have built a great company with many brilliant products, but instead they rested on their laurels. 

While SMART goals can motivate, they can often operate like a finish line that makes you fall short of your full potential. Setting goals with a clearly defined end will not move people to achieve more than the minimum criteria for success; that leads to missed opportunities for growth. 

6. “Realistic” and “Achievable” Can Be Misleading 

When you are pursuing such “realistic” and “achievable” goals as your next promotion, next sales goal or next award, you should pause for a moment and ask, “At what cost?” 
People who are driven in this way have a tendency to overload themselves with too many high priorities. An item is No. 1 for a reason; with too many No. 1 priorities, the number becomes meaningless. Something has to be No. 2, No. 3, and so on. 

When you look at each goal in isolation, they seem realistic and achievable within a certain time frame. But “realistic” is a relative term, not an absolute term. It is not just, “Is this goal realistic considering my capability?” but also, “Is this goal realistic considering all my other goals?”

Pursuing a lofty dream and fulfilling your greater purpose requires a broad vision, one that goes way beyond the immediacy of the next SMART goal. SMART goals can serve as checkpoints in your long journey toward success, but it is important to measure progress by growth and effort as well, because it is growth and learning that are of the most value.

Lei Wang is an internationally-recognized adventurer, motivational speaker and author of After the Summit: New Rules for Reaching Your Peak Potential in Your Career and Life. The first Asian woman to complete the Explorers Grand Slam (climbing the highest peak on each continent and skiing to both poles), Wang channels her experiences to convey a message of perseverance and steadfast determination that her audiences can use at work or at home.

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