Try to Avoid Dumb “S.M.A.R.T.” Goals

Without goals, you have no way to answer the all-important question, “Are we there yet?”

Goals help employees coordinate their efforts, so everyone is rowing in the same direction. Goals help team members understand how they fit into an organization’s overall purpose, fostering a sense of belonging and meaning at work. Goals also provide a litmus test when opportunities arise. Instead of being distracted by each shiny, new idea, goals allow you to ask a simple question: will this opportunity help us achieve what we’re trying to achieve? If yes, pursue it. If no, don’t.

Some goals are better than others, both on merit and by the way they’re crafted.

An effective goal can galvanize a team, give them something to shoot for. An ill-considered goal can be demoralizing, either because it’s out of reach, because it’s based on a wrong-headed idea, or because it’s so poorly written that it’s hard to know how to proceed.

The idea of SMART goals is credited to a water power company executive, George T. Doran, who in 1981 wrote, “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives.” SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable (or assignable), realistic and time-bound. Not every goal must meet all five criteria, but often, the more the better.

SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable (or assignable), realistic and time-bound.

Unfortunately, I see people creating dumb goals just to meet the five criteria. When setting a goal, the most important consideration is this: will achieving the goal have a meaningful impact? If not, it doesn’t matter that it’s specific, measurable, achievable (or assignable), realistic and time-bound.

Let’s say you want to reduce childhood obesity among socioeconomically disadvantaged schoolchildren in your area. A worthwhile SMART goal could be to aim for a three percent increase in the number of fifth-grade students who fall within the Presidential Youth Fitness Program Healthy Fitness Zone for body mass index by the year 2020. Once you have the big goal, you can create actions that support it.

You might consider working with public schools that have a high percentage of students who meet the criteria for free and reduced lunches (to pinpoint the socioeconomically disadvantaged). A successful program could include age-appropriate education at every grade level about why maintaining a healthy weight is important and how to do so, and a rewards program for kids who participate in a school-sponsored walking and/or fitness program. The program may also include education for parents about the dangers of childhood obesity and practical ways to provide healthy, low-cost, nutritious meals, as well as opportunities for their children to be more physically active. By measuring the fifth-graders at the beginning of the goal period, and then periodically over time, you could tell if the actions were having the desired effect. If they were, keep going. If not, adjust accordingly. This is an example of a smart SMART goal.

Sadly, I often see people basing a goal around what’s measurable rather than what’s important. For example, to secure grant funding, a group of people interested in reducing poverty promised to complete 125 household surveys and hold a summit to discuss poverty in the 12 months. The surveys and a summit should have been actions that supported a meaningful SMART goal like: reduce the number of homeless people in our region by five percent by the year 2020.

It is better to have a meaningful goal than a SMART goal. Ideally, a goal can be both, but if you have to choose, go for the meaningful goal. SMART goals are an excellent way to craft goals, but if you only focus on the wrong quantitative measures or completely ignore qualitative measures, your goals won’t get you where you want to go.

If you want help crafting goals that will galvanize your team and get everyone moving in the right direction, let us know.