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SMART Goals Are Not So Smart

September 29, 2020 Leadership
Noah Barsky, professor at Villanova University School of Business
By Noah Barsky, Mike Kennedy

When the time comes for annual goal setting this year, the “new normal” places organizations in one of two positions: courageously and candidly address the challenges revealed in the pandemic or make excuses for ill-fitting and rigid corporate bureaucracy unsuited to these most dynamic times.

Of course, it’s not really a choice. The “we’ve always done it this way” mentality is a poor match for extreme circumstances. Even when it was business as usual, it created a fog that distracted employees and diluted performance. 

Perhaps 2020 can be the year we stop making extensive and unquestioned use of decades-old goal-setting frameworks that never realized their promise. COVID or no COVID, it’s hard to imagine modern employers, having so prioritized engagement, or modern employees, having so prioritized growth and mobility, would embrace this construct that takes few of those priorities into account were it introduced today.

If it’s not already, the time will soon be upon us for supervisors and subordinates to have that goals meeting (and yes, it really is secretly dreaded by both parties). This year the conversation will center on how neither party really knows how to calibrate goals to the current circumstances but need to go through the exercise anyway, even when the future is so uncertain.

The talent marketplace is experiencing enormous turmoil. Now is the time to stop exacerbating that tension with ill-considered management practices. The eventual return and recovery from COVID-19 is a collective opportunity to move from SMART goal setting to intelligent accomplishment pursuit.

From SMART Goals to Meaningful Goals

Don’t misunderstand, setting and working toward defined goals is an essential activity. But the common practice of over-engineering those goals, especially on an annual basis, to align with the SMART criteria (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) serves no one’s interests. The wide array of company-specific alternates only create more confusion.

The most fundamental shift is one of perspective: evolving from goal attainment mindset (which implies a false attainment or failure binary) to meaningful achievement orientation. The wisdom of beginning with the worthy aim still applies — and it likely becomes easier absent the fretting about whether that end is defined as specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

Such a departure from the norm addresses the one question that truly keeps executives up at night – if we precisely met all of our operating goals for each of the next three years will the organization be strategically relevant at that time? 

There are many questions embedded in that grander proposition. Are budgets and targets credible? Is operational obsession putting the company in strategic jeopardy? Are we spending scarce time chasing reports, managing metrics and sacrificing long-term viability? Who’s really monitoring the future and will their voice be heard? Are we confusing activity with action? Have we abandoned fundamental responsibilities as mindful stewards for the next generation of stakeholders?

Related Article: Why Resuming Performance Reviews Now Is a Bad Idea

Exceptional Performance Is Rarely Attainable But Worth Pursuing

The unquestioned embrace of SMART goals is an artifact of performative management: a set of systems that were ostensibly designed to help people perform at their best but in reality largely serve only to frustrate and antagonize the purported beneficiaries. This frustration is acute in particular for top talent who rarely require corporate rubrics to focus their ambitions.

In practical terms, a manager seeking to apply the accomplishment mindset in the context of full-cycle performance management might simply ask each team member to envision “rock star” performance — a year of unequivocal and undeniable high achievement that sets the stage for further company and career growth.

Managers and employees may then reverse engineer from the outcome to set goals, worrying less about what criteria the goals meet and more about whether they drive towards lasting and meaningful accomplishment. In turn, all the fretting about unintended consequences and dysfunctional behavior disappears, especially for top performers.

Top performers do not need SMART goals. They require empowerment (authority) and enablement (resources) to apply their talent to deliver lasting success. Their results warrant recognition and reward. The positive emotion and meaningful professional development from the pursuit of worthy aims fuels exactly the people whom employers should seek to attract, retain and promote.

Counterintuitively, SMART goals provide a labyrinth that shelters workplace mediocrity, clouds the reality of incompetence, fosters disincentive and impairs the potential of the best people to perform at their best.

Related Article: 5 Ways to Have More Effective Performance Conversations

Focus on Developmental Discussions

That’s not to say there shouldn’t be meaningful and measurable metrics. Even within the confines of formal performance review processes as currently designed, managers can and should report on accomplishments: “Sydney’s output in this year was up 5%” does not, for these purposes, deliver any less value for having omitted “against a goal of 10%.”

The manager and Sydney both know that 5% wasn’t the end they had in mind which, in turn, enables rich and productive development discussions no matter where Sydney’s rewards land after the organization places the grander accomplishment in context. Given this, what lasting value to the organization is achieved by memorializing Sydney’s failure to clear the arbitrary, aspirational bar of 10%?

Or is it truly better to record the polite (and pretend) conflict-avoidance goal: Setting Sydney’s bar at an attainable 5% and then reporting it as having simply been met? Doubtful. We’ll happily place long-term bets on any organization that would show not only tolerance of the accomplishment mindset, but eagerness to embed that mindset into its performance management systems and practices.

No artificial successes. No acronyms needed. Exceptional employees wanted.

Up Next: Don't Outsmart Yourself. Focus Goals on Empowering People

About the Authors

Noah Barsky, PhD, is a professor in Executive and Graduate Programs at the Villanova University School of Business.

Mike Kennedy is founder and president of Gray Henley Learning and Development and a principal with Human Advantage LLC.

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