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SMART Goals: You are doing it wrong

SMART goals

So you are working on a design project to create a poster for a client event and the project manager says, "Ok, we need some smart goals. How does 'Increase revenue by 10%' sound?" It sounds horrible. In this blog post, I am going to show you how you are doing SMART goals incorrectly.

Believe it or not, SMART goal criteria has been around since the early 1980s. SMART is an acronym that is regularly misquoted or at best misunderstood in its application. Let's take a look at the definition of each term in the criteria and talk about some common misapplications of the acronym.

First, the definition:

  • S: Specific, meaning non-ambiguous
  • M: Measurable, meaning able to be objectively evaluated 
  • A: Achievable, meaning feasible
  • R: Relevant, meaning achieving the goal adds value
  • T: Time-bound, meaning the goal is defined as having a relevant start and end date 

Now let's talk through a number of common mistakes in the application of the SMART criteria that challenge the worth of SMART goals.

Specificity is a challenge to flexibility

Certain goals intuitively conflict with other goals. For example, a highly specific goal can defeat an objectively vague goal that attempts to create flexibility. And many businesses pride themselves in their ability to remain flexible for their clients. So a goal like... Tackle additional duties as assigned by management in a timely manner in Q1 ...may feel specific but are intentionally ambiguous in hopes of remaining flexible.

Measurable is about measuring the outcome of the specific goal

For some in management, setting up a measurable goal means picking a key performance indicator, like revenue percentage, and making up a goal about that. The term "measurable" in this situation means making a particular goal objectively and contextually measurable. For example, hitting a particular deadline can be measurable. In another example, if we are designing a poster for a client event, we can be specific about the number of rounds it takes to achieve the final design. Getting the work done at or below that number is an objective measurement. In the end, dates and numbers tend to be good ways to make a goal measurable, but only if they are contextually relevant, meaning not arbitrary, which we will get into in a moment.

Achievable means potentially challenging but ultimately feasible

Ensuring that a goal is achievable is about the opportunity for success. Noby wants a goal that is too easy. If you have a staff that prefers easy goals, then you have a lazy team. They want a creative challenge. But you will demoralize your team if you constantly set goals they cannot achieve. So this is where you need to work with your team to determine if a goal is feasible or not. That is the first half of what achievable means in the context of SMART criteria.

The second and equally important meaning of achievable in SMART criteria is about measurable correlation. If my goal is to create the design for a poster to advertise a client event, then I need a SMART goal about creating a poster and not about increasing revenue (unless there is an incredibly dependable set of evidence supporting the notion that certain design factors correlate consistently to revenue growth). This would be like giving a plumber a SMART goal to do with enhancing a home's curbside appeal. That particular goal has no feasible or achievable connect to the outcomes of their work, so it isn't a SMART goal, no matter how many measurable numbers or dates you put in the goal.

Relevant is about whether or not the goal adds value

This criterium is responsible for one of the biggest frustrations people have with SMART goals. Relevant is about the value of setting that goal within the larger context. Think of being a parent who is changing the oil on their car. You know that changing the oil is messy, and takes time that you would rather spend doing something else. And it also can be a little painful if you crack your knuckles on the metal of the car, which makes the effort a little less safe than, say, doing the dishes. Up walks your seven-year-old kid, wanting to help out. "Dad, I want to help. Please let me help."

Now you don't want your kid under that car, so you point to the oil filter sitting on the floor and tell the kid to pick that up and hold it, and when you ask for it, they should reach out and give it to you. Now, is the goal of that kids effort, relevant? Absolutely not. It was fine sitting on the floor where it was. You have given them the goal to simply distract them.

Jump ahead ten years. The kid is now seventeen. "Dad, I want to help." You point at the oil filter. the kid smirks and kicks you as you lay there under the car. "I said I want to help, dad." That kid knows the difference and doesn't want to spend their valuable time not adding value. This is what relevant is all about. Do not treat your team members like seven-year-olds.

Here is a tip. If their job is important enough to pay them to do, then it deserves your time thinking about where and how it adds value and in what ways it is relevant. If you think about it, you will find it. If you assign a goal that isn't relevant, get ready to get kicked by those employees. And if they don't kick you, then you have a lazy team.

Time-bound is about understanding the context of the timing of a goal relative to other important events

If a goal is a maintenance task that never ends, then it isn't a good candidate for a SMART goal. It is more like a category of responsibility. More than likely, responsibilities can lead to opportunities for improvement and you can set SMART goals to do with those opportunities. The key is to figure out how to pick SMART goals that lead to efficiency or innovation and set some goals there.

The biggest blunder to do with the time-bound factor is obsessing over arbitrary deadlines. Deadlines, as we said before, can affect the feasibility and achievability of a goal. So never set a goal assigning an arbitrary deadline that wrecks the feasibility of the effort. Here is my advice when it comes to considering the time-bound criterium: Ask the team member to help set the deadline, "When do you think we could have this completed?" If you think it should or could be done more quickly, then address the other SMART criteria that might be the causing the team member to think it will take longer to do. Does the goal need to be more specific? Is the measurement criterium creating the challenge? Is there an achievability problem due to dependencies on other work?

I hope reviewing the SMART criteria term definitions has proved helpful. If you take the time to commit them to memory, then the general process of setting goals will not only improve the performance of your team, but boost moral because people will see and feel the importance of their efforts.


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