are SMART goals actually dumb?


Before you agree objectives with your team members, or set your own goals, worth reading the white paper from Leadership IQ, a leadership training and research company in the USA.  Their research (4,182 workers from 397 organizations) has debunked the orthodox thinking that SMART goals are, well, smart!  On the contrary, they show that they limit thinking and keep us in our comfort zones.  This confirms my experience of the majority of performance management processes and systems I’ve come across.  

As W. Edwards Deming said many years ago, ‘Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting.’  And as an HR Director said to me some years ago, ‘Our performance management systems are designed to create mediocrity.’

While I do have some reservations as to the zeal in their white paper, for example it takes more than good goal setting to achieve great things, what they have discovered is very interesting indeed.

They found the following eight ‘predictors’ as to whether ‘somebody’s goals were going to help them achieve great things.’  In order of importance:

  1. I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals.
  2. I will have to learn new skills to achieve my assigned goals for this year.
  3. My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
  4. I actively participated in creating my goals for this year.
  5. I have access to any formal training that I will need to accomplish my goals.
  6. My goals for this year will push me out of my comfort zone.
  7. My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me (customers, the community, etc.).
  8. My goals are aligned with the organization’s top priorities for this year.

Looking at this list, what struck me was how linked they are to the Gallup 12 Questions on what makes a great place to work and also work I’m developing with a new partner based in Denmark on Leadership Equity Assessment™  – a brilliantly simple tool for measuring team performance. More on this in a later post.  

Using these factors consider the human being, tap into imagination and hope, are grounded in reality, give full opportunity for engagement and involvement, and require the ability to leverage the polarity of challenge and support, and encourage us to make a contribution to something greater than ourselves.

This demands a leadership transformation.  If you are a leader, how about building these into the goal setting process with your team, and ask your associates use it with there teams?  If you are really courageous, you can even share it with your boss! 

Photo ‘Possibility’ taken at Tentsmuir Forest, Fife in December 2012, © Joe Lafferty, all rights reserved.

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6 comments… add one

  • Jesper Holst

    Tx for this uplifting insight.

    I read motivation towards goals, rather than goals for motivation – is key to great things being accomplished.
    I think that deserves to be in our managerial/leadership thinking.
    I would love to see “the right to fall short in achieving the great when pursuing the great” as an anxiety quencher in there as well, but it might be out of box thinking for greatness. We are humans and therefore great and we can also extend ourselves and do great.

    PS. Danish Professor in Management Johnsen had years back among his works a book accompanied by a test on motivation gifts as a prerequisite of best work roles, bearing witness to the idea that the motivation of the individual is at the heart of achieving great things.

  • Hi Joe,

    I am currently finalising my goals for 2013 with mentoring support from and I’m using SMART as part of my process. However, when I read your blog it struck me that the white paper is commenting on SMART goals as an employee activity within a corporate organisational structure.

    An employee, regardless of status, can be as committed or uncommitted to their company’s vision and goals as they choose, whereas an Entrepreneur is 100% committed to SMART goals and their achievement. A successful entrepreneur is focused on delivering excellence to customers and community, and that excellence is not just a result of effective business systems and procedures, but the result of a passion for our business activity, personal integrity, positive attitude, care & compassion for the customer/client.

    My own goals are not restricted to my business, they also include my own personal development. Jim Rohn said, “work twice as hard on yourself as you do on your business”. Consequently my business IS my life, it represents who I am every minute of the day. This appears to be the emphasis of the 8 predictors, each of which begins with either ‘I’ or ‘My’ i.e. the goals to be achieved involve the whole person, not just tasks in which to engage.

    When we live with this mindset we cannot fail, because such is our strength of character that obstacles are seen as opportunities, and failures are lessons from which we learn. We turn every negative into a positive and are energised and motivated to move forward. In doing so we reap the rewards of who we are, not just the goals we set.

  • I like the photo, and particularly like no.7 in the list. I would put it at no.1 for importance – leads to enlightened self-interest and self-interested goals, as a fairly usual priority are enhanced.

  • thanks for the comments!
    the photo is one I took over the Christmas break in Tentsmuir forest, Fife.

  • Howdy! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that
    would be ok. I’m absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new updates.

  • Thanks for comment Orlando – my twitter is available from the front page on left hand side, just click on the link. Or you can find it on the middle pane underneath the twitter feed.
    best regards,

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