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Mar 17, 2021
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

SMART goals have been a fixture in corporate life for more than 50 years, but you’ll rarely see successful CEOs use that approach. Chief executives typically eschew achievable and realistic goals in favor of BHAGs (big, hairy, audacious goals) or HARD goals (heartfelt, required, animated, and difficult).

Notwithstanding the ubiquity of specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-limited goals, SMART objectives have inspired far more mediocrity than prosperity. There’s little or no fulfillment, excitement, challenge, or growth in reaching a goal that’s achievable, realistic, and generally undemanding.

This will strike some as heretical, so let’s conduct a quick exercise.

Think about your life’s greatest achievements, the accomplishments that months or years later still fill you with pride. Maybe you got a big promotion, earned a tough certification, put your kids through college, or ran a marathon.

Now ask yourself: Were your great achievements easy or hard? Did you know everything when you started, or did you have to learn a lot? Were your achievements inside or outside your comfort zone? Were your goals comfortably achievable and realistic, or were they courageous and difficult?

If you’re like the tens of thousands of leaders to whom I’ve posed this question, your great achievements were hard, required lots of learning, resided firmly outside your comfort zone, and were courageous and difficult.

Your great accomplishments may have been specific, measurable, and time-limited, but they were not (initially) achievable and realistic. Obviously, you did ultimately accomplish those goals, but only because you challenged your limitations and expanded your abilities. Had you aimed for a more mediocre target, you wouldn’t consider that accomplishment among your proudest moments.

When SMART Is Dumb

In the study “Are SMART Goals Dumb?,” involving more than 16,000 people, my team and I discovered that only 43% of people set difficult or audacious goals. Yet those who do are 34% more likely to love their jobs!

Why? First, very few people are excited by goals whose success is guaranteed. If my achievable goal this year is to attend three training seminars, it’s a virtual certainty that I can caffeinate my way through those classes. I won’t have to leave my comfort zone, nor will I expand my mind. Perhaps if there were grades and tests involved, I’d feel more challenged and thus more proud of the accomplishment, but that’s often not the case.

Second, setting middling goals is often a recipe for middling career success. In the aforementioned study, we learned that top executives are 64% more likely to set difficult or audacious goals. Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPhone by setting SMART goals. He only achieved legendary status because, as he famously said, “We attract a different type of person… Someone who really wants to get in a little over his head and make a little dent in the universe.”

Again, successful CEOs rarely set SMART goals. And our greatest personal accomplishments were rarely the result of SMART goals. So why do companies still use achievable and realistic goals for their employees?

The Tyranny of Mediocrity

Greatness takes more work (and courage) than mediocrity. It takes managers who are sufficiently trained and courageous to guide employees through a process of setting more difficult goals. It takes leaders who will encourage challenging goals even when some accomplishments will undoubtedly fall short of the target. It takes executives who are more concerned with employee growth and development than with having 100% completion rates in their employee performance management systems.

And that’s the issue that every talent and human capital leader needs to confront; would we rather have a program that’s easy to administer or one that truly stretches and develops our people?

The pursuit of greatness is harder to administer than mediocrity. But make no mistake, mediocrity is what we’ll see if we keep assigning achievable and realistic goals. And I will remind you that your greatest accomplishments were almost certainly the result of difficult and audacious goals, not achievable and realistic ones.

People who pursue difficult and audacious goals typically feel intense pride and fulfillment. By contrast, people who pursue comfortably achievable goals rarely get the deep fulfillment that comes from truly substantial achievements. 

And here’s a great irony: We often give employees achievable and realistic goals because we don’t want them feeling anxious about more difficult ones. Yet by removing the anxiety and challenge from their goals, we rob our employees of the opportunity for fulfillment, excitement, challenge, and growth.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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