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3 ways your SMART goals can come unstuck

We’ve been taught that the SMART goal setting system is the right one for years. But what if the model is flawed?


Since it first appeared in the 1981 issue of Management Review, the SMART acronym for goal setting has been the most popular goal setting system on the planet. A simple search for SMART goals on google will yield over 485 million results. Not bad considering it was developed more than 20 years before the world wide web became mainstream.

So why is it so popular? There are some good reasons. It makes sense, delivers results and is easy to remember – something all great models should do. However, the model itself is not perfect. In fact, there are some inherent problems with the system that can bring leaders unstuck.

So what is SMART goal setting?

SMART is a way of setting and writing goals so they are ’specific, measureable, attainable, realistic and timely.’ There have been a number of variations developed over the years (eg. ’attainable’ replaced with ’action-oriented’ and ’realistic’ with ’results-focused’). The premise of the model is that properly formulated goals, which satisfy each SMART ingredient, provide you with the best chance of success. The problem though, is that there are some other critical ingredients of well-formed goals that may get missed along the way – important ones. So where can the SMART goal setting system become unstuck?

  1. Lack of ’why’

    I’ve seen goals that deliver on each of the SMART principles but a serious lack of drive from key personnel makes goal attainment almost impossible. SMART goals tend to focus on the ’what’ but often don’t pay enough attention to the ’why’. Why is this important? Why must we achieve these results? A strong ’why’ helps connect people to a goal’s importance and can help maintain momentum over time. When the ’why’ is strong, the ’how’ tends to take care of itself.

  2. Conflicting goals and priorities

    Some goals are in direct conflict with each other. To achieve one goal can mean that another goal is compromised (think cost reduction versus top line growth goals as an example). Individually, they may be SMART but collectively they don’t support each other. Therefore, goals should not be looked at in isolation. The interplay of goals should be examined and refined to ensure feasibility.

  3. Lack of ownership

    Leaders may work very hard to create the right ’SMART’ goals but if the commitment is lacking from key players, then attainment becomes tricky. The best goals connect with us at the head and heart level. Goals need to be intellectually compelling and emotionally appealing.

    It is much harder for team members to own the outcomes if they haven’t had any involvement in the development of the goals. Yet, some leaders share goals and expect team members to fall into line and ’make it happen.’ This can be dangerous. The right level of involvement in both goal development and the actions required to attain goals is something that can pay huge dividends over time. Clear lines of accountability connected with strong ownership are key goal achievement drivers.

Well-formed SMART goals that give adequate consideration to the three areas mentioned above help provide teams and individuals with the focus they need to succeed.

‘A goal properly set is halfway reached.’ Zig Ziglar

Next begins the work around execution – setting a course of action to bring the targets within reach. Navigating that course and achieving your goal’s vision can be incredibly rewarding – enjoy it.

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