Being SMART is dumb!

In just two pages, George Doran in 1981 set out an acronym that has, over 40 years later, become universally accepted as how goals should be expressed. The trouble is SMART is not actually that smart. The fault lies not with Doran but with the rest of us for adopting an opinion offered as a fact without any supporting evidence. Worse, for the most part the acronym is cited inaccurately. Doran defined the ‘A’ in SMART as ‘Assignable’ and not the more commonly used ‘Agreed’ or ‘Achievable’. SMART is also often incorrectly applied. Doran specifically stated that not all goals have to meet the five SMART criteria and yet most proponents of SMART insist that they should.

Meantime, the brilliant research of Edwin Locke and Gary Latham spanning more than half a century  has provided a rich tapestry of insight into goal setting. Their research into goal setting has been tested, enriched and refined by many others. It turns out that the concept of SMART goals is, at best, weak. In fact none of the 5 letters stands critical scrutiny and many important facets of goal setting are left out.

For example, the evidence is clear that the best goals are not achievable or realistic as is commonly understood, rather the best goals are perceived as challenging, as difficult to achieve. Steve Dermott in his talk to the London Business School was much more accurate in changing the ‘A’ and ‘R’ to ‘Awesome’ and ‘Ridiculous’. This better captures the sentiment of what makes a good goal. Think of people who have achieved amazing things. These were often awesome and ridiculous goals at the outset for those involved. Importantly, they really wanted to achieve those goals – they were committed to achieving them. It doesn’t matter how easy or hard a goal is if someone does not want to do it. Commitment matters. We should be setting goals that place unreasonable expectations on people – goals should seem almost impossible, but not quite. In fact, if you want people to set challenging goals, get them involved in setting their goals, or even better, let them set them themselves. The evidence suggests that people will probably set more demanding goals than if the goal had been imposed on them by someone else.

You’d think ‘Specific’ and ‘Measurable’ were a slam dunk as essential goal setting criteria. Not so. For example, Rebecca Hawkins and colleagues found that open goals, where the person was asked to ‘see how well they could do’, were more effective for physically inactive people than setting specific and measurable goals. There is a place for being specific and measurable but this relates to a number of other factors such as the complexity of the task the person is undertaking and their previous experience in that activity. The relationship between task complexity, experience and skills do not feature in the SMART concept.

It also turns out it is quite useful to know how well you are doing towards a goal. If your goal is to achieve a challenging sales target, knowing the level of sales achieved as time passes is important in increasing your chance of success. Just getting feedback is not enough, you also need to know what to do and how to do it. Without the right knowledge or skills, a goal can become simply too challenging or impossible. Think about asking someone to complete some statistical analysis to meet a challenging deadline, the chance of them succeeding is non-existent if they don’t understand statistics or know how to use statistical software. And unless people have the right resources (time, money, equipment, support, etc.) then the goal becomes little more than wishful thinking. Neither feedback, commitment, knowledge, skills or resources are mentioned in SMART.

By all means, continue to use SMART if it provokes a discussion that drives clarity and understanding about what you are trying to achieve, but as a goal setting tool it ignores too many other facets of goal setting that decades of research has demonstrated to be critical.

The next time you are involved in setting goals, rather than fall back on the acronym SMART, ask yourself:

  1. How best can I involve people in setting their own goals?
  2. Do the goals set feel difficult to achieve but not impossible?
  3. Is it enough that the person for whom the goal is being set has a go at getting started or is a level of specificity appropriate?
  4. What feedback mechanism exists to help the person for whom the goal is set understand progress towards the goals?
  5. Do they have the knowledge they need to achieve the goal and, if not, the capability to acquire it?
  6. Do they have the skills needed to achieve the goal or do we need to show them how?
  7. Do they have the right resources to be able to do what’s being asked of them?
  8. Above all, do they want to do it?

Goal setting really matters. For example, there is evidence to suggest that effective goal setting can increase employee output by approximately 20%. Students engaged in writing their goals down typically experience greater performance than those who do not. But let’s take an evidence-based approach to goal setting, it’s surely the smarter thing to do.

Dr. Dominic Irvine and Professor Emeritus Simon Jobson