Beyond SMART Goals: How to Build Better Results

Just about everyone has used some version of SMART goals. This is a mnemonic acronym for setting goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time bound

Using the SMART system makes it easier to stay on track and accomplish key success factors. There are a couple of variants; the idea is that setting specific objectives along with details for completion ensures that goals are realistic, measurable, and achievable within a required time frame.

But there are problems with using the SMART goal-setting system. When do SMART goals fail? When people rush toward decisions simply because they have a high need for closure, missteps are more likely to happen.

In the rush to check a goal off a list, some personalities make mistakes such as denying, misinterpreting, or suppressing information that is inconsistent with the requirements for a task. When overly focused on feeling productive, one can become blind to details that should give pause.

To many people, it can feel so good to achieve a goal that they are unwilling to sacrifice the pleasure of satisfaction even when it is clearly a mistake. They will ignore indications that the outcome may not contribute to desired results.

Personalities and the Need for Closure

Researchers at the University of Maryland published a test in 1994 designed to measure a personality trait known as "the need for cognitive closure." People with a high degree of this trait have a strong desire for a confident judgment on an issue– any confident judgment– as compared to feeling confusion and ambiguity.

Most people have a mixed need for personal organization, decisiveness, and predictability. About 20 percent of people score high on this personality trait measure. While personal organization and self-discipline are seen as qualities of leadership, a rush to achieve completion on a goal can override common sense. SMART goals work well because they are specific, time-bound, and give structure toward end results. But for some, goal achievement itself can cause people to lose sight of the right outcomes.

How Did Goals Evolve?

SMART criteria are commonly attributed to Peter Drucker’s management by objectives concept. The first-known use of the term occurs in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T. Doran (Doran, G. T. (1981). “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives.” Management Review (AMA FORUM) 70 (11): 35–36.)

A pair of university psychologists, Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, helped develop the SMART criteria through field experiments. Goal-setting theory (Locke & Latham, 1990, 2002) was developed within organizational psychology over a 25-year period, based on some 400 laboratory and field studies.

These studies showed that specific, high (hard) goals lead to a higher level of task performance than do easy goals or vague, abstract goals such as the exhortation to ”do your best.” So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance.

When SMART Goals Get Stupid

The SMART system forces people to translate vague aspirations into concrete plans. Former GE CEO Jack Welch claims that his insistence on SMART goals was one of the reasons the company’s stock more than tripled in eight years. Yet some divisions never seemed to excel and would have irregular results.

The problem is one of human nature: it is so satisfying to complete goals that people will write down trivial goals that are easily accomplished. People become obsessed with achievable but inconsequential goals, and focus on unimportant short-term objectives rather than more ambitious plans.

Leadership IQ, a training and research company, studied 4,182 employees from 397 companies and found that just 15 percent of those surveyed strongly agreed that their goals would help them achieve great things. Only 13 percent of workers strongly agreed that their goals would help them maximize their full potential.

The SMART Solution: Stretch Goals

How can you shake yourself out of a focus on short-term objectives? The answer is to innovate and grow by including stretch goals using SMART criteria. Simply focusing on SMART criteria won’t help you live up to your highest potential.

Stretch goals use dreams and ambitions to set career targets. In order for this process to be productive, the goal has to be really big with no real idea of how to get it accomplished. If you do know how to get it done, then it’s not really a stretch target.

Numerous studies have found that committing to ambitious, seemingly-out-of-reach targets can stimulate incredible results in innovation and productivity. A parallel concept is called “big, hairy audacious goals,” or BHAGS, proposed by James Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1994 book entitled Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.

“A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.”
~Collins and Porras, Built to Last

Get smart about goals. Use the SMART criteria and include a stretch goal to grow into your potential. Use your coach to help you build better results.

The Inner Mindset of an Effective Leader

What distinguishes great leaders from their mediocre colleagues?  Leaders with a growth mindset use every challenge as a learning goal. Effective leaders set an inner mindset to learn from every challenge.

Some leaders focus almost exclusively on performance. Others emphasize growth and learning, as well as results. In a horse race, put your money on the leader who defines both learning and performance goals.

Many managers and leaders are performance-driven. They have lists of SMART goals that highlight what they intend to achieve each quarter, often involving numbers:

  • Exceed sales results by 5%.
  • Increase bonuses by 10% by year’s end.
  • Improve team productivity by 25%.
  • Increase shareholder value.
  • Decrease customer complaints.

In my coaching work with clients, such performance-driven leaders focus exclusively on the outer game. They judge their worth by whether they’ve achieved these goals, and they hold their people to the same standards.

Unfortunately, these leaders are likely missing key factors that restrict their potential: a growth mindset and the ability to set and pursue learning goals for themselves and others.

“The desire to learn is as fundamental to our being as the desire to survive and to enjoy.”
~ Tim Gallwey, The Inner Game of Work

Learning goals include:

  • Diminish feelings of stress.
  • Enhance listening skills.
  • Develop empathy skills.
  • Improve coaching skills.
  • Facilitate more cohesive team-building.

Performance goals are, of course, necessary for achieving bottom-line results. But keep in mind that the bar is constantly being raised. How do you keep increasing your capacity to perform? If you cannot improve your capabilities, you’re unable to keep up. Learning goals represent the inner game you must work on to prevent stagnation.

What do you think? Have you set learning goals for yourself, or worked with a coach on your inner game? I’d love to hear from you; you can reach me here and on LinkedIn.