You’re probably familiar with the concept of SMART goals. SMART is commonly defined as Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound.
Organizations use these goals with two primary aims in mind. When addressing each aspect of the initials in SMART goals, the anticipated result is a clearly-defined direction for employees, and a well-set timeline to overcome procrastination and motivate employees to stay on track.
It is easy to see how you could expect SMART goals to work best when you are trying to reach a well-defined concrete target under a steady-state situation. Where you can see the target as realistic and the progress within your control, they are great for providing short-term direction and planning progress toward a long-term goal.
When SMART goals don’t work well
It is dangerous when SMART goals are blindly applied to every pursuit. For people who are aiming for big dreams that venture into new territories, or organizations that want to truly achieve ultimate greatness, especially in a dynamic environment, SMART goals are often inadequate, and sometimes detrimental.
To avoid such mistakes in applying SMART goals, it is helpful to know where and why they do not work. There are six primary problems inherent with SMART goals.
1. Focusing too narrowly on a SMART goal
Fixating on a single SMART goal, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing it as the only goal. Looking at the SMART goal in the context of the competing and contributing goals will likely influence your actions regarding the single goal.
2. Using SMART goals to measure success and failure
SMART goals need to be specific and measurable, so you can objectively evaluate if you have reached the goal or not. They are effective in managing progress when working on projects in a controllable environment. However, if you apply the same criteria to measure success or failure, it can motivate people in the wrong way, and when the situation is dynamic or extreme, it can even be dangerous.
When success is measured by a SMART goal, people end up pursuing that goal blindly. Failure to meet a SMART goal will then be demotivating. Employees only see losses, unable to appreciate what they have achieved, even if the precise objective is not entirely met. What drives them to success when things go well, may send them into a tailspin when they do not.
3. Sacrificing long-term success for a short-term goal
Turn to any business or market news channel, and you will find a portion of the daily news is about how much the stock price of companies rises or falls because they beat or missed their quarterly earnings target or market expectations. To an outsider, earnings appear to be the most prominent measure of a company’s performance. Because of the likely negative market reaction to missing their earnings target, firms commonly take extreme measures to meet expectations. They put meeting the quarterly SMART goals set by Wall Street above their customers and their long-term success. Eventually, that strategy will be fatal for business.
4. Giving up too soon and the all-or-nothing approach
A SMART goal can be discouraging, either before or after reaching the goal. Have you ever heard yourself saying, “I don’t have time,” when excusing yourself for not doing what you had planned for that day? Time management is one of the most popular applications of SMART goals. When you think about allocating time to do a certain task, it’s often in terms of all-or-nothing. SMART goals are viewed as a complete entity, and when you are unable to do everything as planned, you can become discouraged and give up the entire goal.
5. Failing to realize one’s full potential
Even when people reach their SMART goal, it may not be a real success. While working toward SMART goals can motivate you along the way, they can also operate like a stop sign that makes you fall short of your full potential. There’s a tendency to view achieving a business goal as an ending. Setting goals that are too easy will not move most people to achieve more than the minimum; they miss the opportunity for growth and they will never know what they might have achieved if the goal had been more challenging.
6. ‘Realistic’ and ‘Achievable’ can be misleading
When you are pursuing “realistic” and “achievable” goals such as your next promotion, next higher sales numbers, next award, you should pause for a moment to ask, “At what cost?”
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People who are self-driven have a tendency to overload themselves with too many top priorities. An item is number one for a reason, so with too many number one priorities, the number becomes meaningless. Something has to be number two, number three, and so on.
When you look at each goal in isolation, it’s seen as realistic and achievable within a certain time frame. The tendency is to be overly ambitious, thinking, “I will figure out a way to fit it in!” But realistic is a relative term, not an absolute term. It is not just considering, “Is this goal realistic considering my capability?” but also, “Is this goal realistic considering all my other goals?”
Pursuing a lofty dream and fulfilling your greater purpose requires a broad vision, one that goes way beyond the immediacy of the next SMART goal. SMART goals can serve as checkpoints in your long journey to keep you on the path toward success. It is important to measure progress by growth and effort as well, because it is the growth and learning along the way that are of the most value.