Here’s why you should drop them to create a stronger team
SMART goals create a perverse incentive to set the bar so low as to make a goal worthless. — Me
Goals are somewhat nebulous things. They can be something as abstract as “I want to be a better person” or as specific as “I want to lose 10 lbs. by next month.”
Because goals can be so varied in both fidelity and scope, it is no surprise enterprise organizations look for ways to standardize the way goals are defined. One such popular standard is SMART goals, originally coined by Peter Drucker, but has since had a few modifications.
SMART is a mnemonic acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
The idea here seems simple enough. Ensure the goals you set for yourself, your team, or your company meet these criteria. It’s a rubric that helps narrow the goal down to something seemingly more helpful. After all, if a goal is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound, then we can by definition measure it to ensure progress. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work in theory.
In reality, SMART goals lack one very particular criterion that, in my view, makes them entirely worthless: value. Nothing about SMART goals helps identify if the goal delivers any type of value to either the individual, the group, or the organization. This makes them, by definition, worthless (lacking value).
The lack of value to SMART goals also makes them anti-agile. Although the first principle of Agile is geared toward software, the mentality of delivering value is the underlying point.
Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
If you replace the term software with products, then you can see how the mentality is one that can be easily transferred to any enterprise. However, in order to deliver valuable products, the goals and objectives of the organization must be in alignment with this statement.
Therefore, the goals of the organization must also achieve some sort of value in service of the product. For more on this mindset, check out my other article The Explanation of Agile You Probably Never Heard.
You may think this is the only significant problem, but I’m just getting started. In fact, I’ll tackle each one of the criteria of SMART and why each is actually damaging or runs counter to good goal setting.
The first criteria of SMART goals are that a goal should be specific. On the surface, this again seems quite logical. After all, if something is specific then it is easy to determine if it has been achieved. But therein lies the problem. Why must a goal be achieved? Does a goal that may not have the potential of being achieved make it a bad goal? Let’s look at an example.
Philosophical scholars suggest we should be seeking eudaimonia, or “a state of being in good spirit,” as the highest human good. But can we be in this state all the time? Of course not. We fall in and out of this state all the time. Some of us perhaps never achieve it at all. Does that mean we should not aspire to be eudemonic? Is it a bad goal now? Who would argue such a thing? But under SMART goals, eudaimonia is not a good goal and thus, should not be attempted.
Making a goal measurable again seems like a really decent idea. By making something measurable, you can determine progress. But what happens if halfway through you recognize that the wrong measurement is being applied? Do you change the unit of measure? That would be nice, except now you’re committed to the goal, and shifting units means you have to start over. That’s unacceptable to management because it usually messes with deadlines.
Measurement adds a deflationary pressure to the goal. If you make something measurable, that means someone is going to be reporting on it. That is usually your boss. The then is to set a goal where incentive success is very easy to achieve. In fact, this incentive is so strong it’s actually the very next criteria of SMART goals.
This is perhaps the biggest complaint I have with SMART goals next to their lack of value. The deflationary pressure is so strong as to make the goal feckless and uninspired. Achievable goals, especially ones tied to something that is being measured, monitored, and often tied to a definition of success, are effectively neutered from being inspirational. There is no room for failure and thus, no room for ambition.
Organizations that thrive are the ones that set lofty, ambitious goals, and fail regularly to achieve them (how many SpaceX launches have failed?). This is so much the case that there is a common trope among the most successful people on the planet: “You learn more from your failures than you do your successes.” SMART goals not only encourage you to avoid failure, but they make it a requirement.
Making a goal relevant begs the question, “relevant to what or who”? And the answer unavoidably is to management. Sure, we can make SMART goals for individuals, but then what’s the point of the business spending time on them? Ultimately goals become about the company’s own goals. This is so much the case that along with SMART goals they’re often done in the fashion of “cascading goals.”
Cascading goals is a process where leadership at the highest level of the organization set their own SMART goals. Then each department head sets their goals which must be in line with the leadership’s goals in order to be considered relevant. This propagates down the corporate structure through the team leads and then into the individual employee. Each person along the way must make their goal relevant to the goals set by their management. It is, in effect, top-down management for goal setting.
This can create a significant problem where useful goals to the individual may be discarded in favor of non-impactful goals. For example:
Say you owned a baseball team and you set the goal for the baseball team that everyone should throw the ball faster. You send out the order to all your coaches that this must be achieved by all members of the team in order to be considered successful. Now, this goal may make sense for pitchers, outfielders, and even most of the infielders. However, what good is this to the first baseman who rarely, if ever has to throw the ball? I’m not saying they don’t throw the ball, it’s just not exactly an area of the first baseman’s game they often need to improve on.
Instead, the first baseman should focus on things like making themselves a better target when they position themselves on the bag. They should work on fielding grounders that take funny hops off the grass. They should work on positioning themselves against specific batters. Etc. These goals are specific to the first baseman and in some cases are only relevant to him or her. The idea should be to improve the individual on what they lack the most. If this is controlled by management then not only will the player not get better, but they will likely develop a poor attitude as they feel their value is being ignored.
I don’t mind timeboxing for things you measure to help identify progress and reflect. But when it comes to goals it seems illogical to have a set date for them. Most definitions of goals are that they are long-term and broad. Whereas objectives are short term and have easily identifiable due dates. This definitional distinction is only part of the clutter one must sweep away if goals are to be useful.
Goals are supposed to be good. If a goal does not have a time limit, does that make it bad then? Earlier I brought up eudaimonia as an example of something difficult to be specific about. It is also an excellent example of a goal that shouldn’t be time bound. If I were to try and put a date on achieving eudaimonia, then do I stop attempting to achieve it after the due date has passed?
Another problem with time-bound goals is the likelihood of cheating. As pressure builds on the individual, team, or organization to achieve the goal on time, they will begin dropping some of the more time-consuming behaviors that often ensure quality. The goal is to beat the clock; It is no longer to do something well.
SMART goals are really terrible things that push for goals to be feckless, lack value, and so uninspired as to already be achieved through current behavior. There is nothing ambitious about SMART goals, and failure is seen as the enemy when it should be embraced.
Organizations that tie SMART goals to measure the performance of their teams are an especially counter-productive activity. Not only are you setting the bar low, but you’re also providing incentives to set it as low as possible. Perhaps even worse, the number of supposed “successful” SMART goals will give the impression that the entire organization is improving in some way that they really aren’t.
It’s great to have goals and to break those goals down into objectives. It’s also great for leadership to have initiatives they want to spread across the entire organization. But constraining goals with SMART means you’re setting up a perverse incentive to do the exact opposite of what you intend.
I suggest a product mindset instead. One where goals are set that focus on fulfilling customer needs. Allow the individuals within the organization to explore new, innovative, and ambitious ways to fulfill those needs. Create an environment that embraces failure as a result of lofty ambition. Set goals so high as to perhaps seem impossible, yet good even when not achieved. That’s when you’ll have a happy employee base filled with the desire to do their best.