What’s so smart about SMART goals?

Charles Kingsmill on July 9, 2015

Every year the performance appraisal comes round and thoughts turn to the year ahead. “You should agree 3-5 goals for the year ahead, and they should be SMART” say the guidelines. Everyone knows what SMART stands for, right?

  • “Yes, it’s Specific, Meaningful, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound…”
  • “No, that’s wrong, it’s Stretching, Measurable, Aligned, Realistic, Tangible…”
  • “I always thought it was Simple, Manageable, Action-orientated, Results-based, Trackable…”

So there’s problem number one:  No two people on the planet can agree what SMART stands for.

Right, let’s have a look at the second problem.

Here’s a specific example of a SMART goal, recommended by another blogger, as part of a post about why SMART goals are good. (You can track down the source if you wish, but I don’t want to embarrass him.)

  • Bad example: “I want to write a book.”
  • Good example: “I want to write a book on time management that is at least 200 pages in length and have it done by December 16th.”

Okay, I’d love to write a book, so I’m happy to take this goal on, except I’d like to tweak it a bit, because I’d rather inject mustard in my eyeballs than write 200 pages about time management. So here’s mine, using some of the same, rather odd, terminology:

  • I want to write a book about some dude who busts a girl out of prison and rides off into the post-apocalyptic sunset with her.
  • At least 350 pages ‘in length’.
  • ‘Have it done’ by Easter.
  • … And sell 100,000 copies by Summer.
  • (Bonus ball: I get to star in the film the following year, with, oh, I don’t know, Winona Ryder. I think that’s what’s called a stretch goal.)

Pretty SMART, right?  And I’d really like to have written a book like that, I really would. But can you guess the problem?

Problem number two. My goal is not gonna happen, and no amount of tweaking the SMART-knobs will make it happen.

What? Do I hear an objection?

My goal is not realistic? Yes, Mr Smart Alec in the maroon sweater, my goal is perfectly realistic. There are plenty of people writing books right now which will go on to sell 100,000 copies.  It’s more than realistic; it would be surprising if it didn’t happen.

What, you still object?

Okay, what if I made it a bit more realistic?  What would you consider to be a more realistic goal?  A book about time management? An article about time management?  Oh, okay, a blog-post about time management, by Easter. By the end of next year, okay.

Well, my be-sweatered friend, I think we have arrived at

Problem number three: Insisting on R for Realism sucks all the dreams and ambitions out of your goals.

And then we are left with a paradox. It concerns those few inspired people, typing away in their sheds, who are writing future bestsellers. You can bet your bottom dollar that the one thing they’ve never typed is… a SMART goal.  They’ve typed synopses and character sketches and six versions of chapter one; maybe they even started with the publishers’ blurb.  But a SMART goal? Never.

And that’s problem number four. Take a dramatically successful outcome and track backwards from it; you’re highly unlikely to find a SMART goal.

When you think about it, it’s obvious. Anyone who wants to change the world can’t afford to listen to the man in the maroon sweater who insists on realism. So somehow SMART goals are missing the point.

Maybe goals help things to come true, maybe they don’t. But SMART goals are self-limiting.

They do serve a purpose, but it’s not an honourable one. They just give Mr Snopes some ammunition for beating you up at next year’s appraisal.

That’s why SMART goals don’t work. What would? That’s for next time…

This blog was originally published here