Why SMART Goals are Important

October 29, 2019
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The ideas behind SMART are timeless, however if you simplify complex ideas into simple acronyms a lot is lost. That is why we think it is time to go back to the source, and explore exactly what makes SMART goals smart.

We looked at what goal science has to say about the S-M-A-R and T. SMART is still very important, but it might not be for the reasons you've been told.

S is for Specific

The reasoning behind setting “specific” goals is that we perform better when we know what to do. Think about your to do list. Which are the items that get done quickly and which are the ones that seem to stay on your list forever? If you are like me, something like “Buy a dozen eggs” will get done quickly while “Buy a chicken” might stay on my list for weeks. I have lots of experience buying eggs and can get right on it without much thought. I have never bought a chicken and having lived in the city most of my life I’m clueless about where to start.

There have been several studies that prove this. One study, out of Stanford, created two versions of a reward card for a frozen yogurt shop. The first version offered 1 free yogurt after purchasing any six flavors of yogurt in any order. The second version required ordering banana, apple, strawberry, orange, mango, and then grape in that order to receive the free cup.

The customers given the more specific version of the rewards card were 75% more likely to return to the store 6 times, complete the card and get their free cup of yogurt.

Professors Edwin Locke and Gary Latham have also written about this phenomenon. They found that as we move further outside our own area of expertise we have to engage in more and more problem solving to understand how to approach a goal. This can have negative consequences on our ability to stay motivated and complete our goals quickly.

It is a logical idea. If buying eggs is my goal I can move right to completing it. However if I am tasked with buying a chicken I will first have to engage in some problem solving, starting with my very minimal knowledge of chickens and expanding on that knowledge until I know enough to complete the task. This second process involves a lot discovery and does not always happen in a predictable way. The less I know about chickens at the start the longer and more unpredictable the process of buying a chicken will be.

You might have already noticed that buying an egg and buying a chicken are equally specific sentences. Which I did to make the point that just because you give someone a goal that sounds specific does not mean you are living up to the reasoning behind SMART goals. Specific goals should have a clear path to success for the person receiving the goal. If you’ve ever worked with a young intern, you know that specific goals mean different things to different people. For the lowly intern even getting a cup of coffee requires tremendous problem solving.

Lets return to the frozen yogurt example for a moment. There is something I didn’t tell you. The researchers also measured how many people wanted to take part in the rewards program. They presented one of the two versions and asked if the customer would like the rewards card.

Customers presented with the more flexible version (any yogurt in any order) signed up two and a half times more often than customers presented the very specific version!

We are great at completing specific goals, but we want flexible goals. This leaves us with a conflict. On the one hand employees are more likely to want to take on flexible goals that give them autonomy and let them do a little learning and problem solving. On the other hand employees will be most successful with a specific set of goals that requires no thinking, just rote action.

As a manager then we must balance these two forces. Generally goals that push employees slightly beyond their existing skill set, so that their skill set can still be applied to solving the new problem will be both quickly achieved and stimulating for the employee.

Another approach is to ask yourself, am I trying to get buy-in on a new goal or am I trying to get a difficult goal completed? If you want your team to embrace an easy but unpopular goal, consider making it a little less specific and a little more flexible so the team can embrace it and make it their own. If you already have lots of support but the goal is very difficult, consider being very specific so the team can apply their energy to exactly what needs to be done.

All that boiled was down to an "S." Before reading this you might have been forgiven for wondering why your intern still hasn't bought you a chicken.

In summary, the S in S.M.A.R.T. stands for - 

  1. Make sure the person receiving the goal can see a clear path to success
  2. And don't make the goal so rigid that your employee feels like a soulless automaton 

M is for Measurable

A measurable goal includes a metric or metrics that can be tracked so those involved know when the goal has been achieved. Many of us are guilty of setting goals that can’t be measured. For example maybe you have wanted to “be healthier.” Without metrics to quantify that goal it will be very difficult to know how much progress you are making or when you finally achieve "healthier." The unmeasurable goal is also an unclear goal, healthier could mean weighing less, but it could also mean running more.

When we make goals more measurable we also make them more motivating. From the last example, we might decide to throw out our goal to be healthier and replace it with a goal to complete a 5k race in under 30 minutes. This new measurable goal allows us to calculate exactly how much time we need to improve, and there is no ambiguity around if or when we achieve it. In fact there will be a triumphant moment when we cross a literal finish line.

The value of measurable goals is well understood, and Measurable is probably the most popular of the five characteristics of a SMART goal. So rather than convince you to make your goals more measurable, let me make the case that maybe your goals are already too measurable.

George Doran coined the acronym S.M.A.R.T. back in November of 1981, and in his original definition Doran is far less insistent on measurability than many of us are today. Doran said, “Notice these criteria don’t say that all objectives must be quantified...managers can lose the benefit of more abstract objectives in order to gain quantification.”

"Blasphemy!" I hear you say. But Doran is not the only one.

Drs. Edwin Locke and Gary Latham are the grandfathers of the study of modern goal-setting. These two scientists do not even include measurability in their 5 Goal Setting Principles. Instead measurability is discussed only as a way to give your goals more Clarity. For Locke and Latham measurability was important only as much as it made goals more clear, because clear goals are more motivating than ambiguous goals.

Now you might be thinking that Doran, Locke and Latham are luddites from another time. A time before big data, sensors, and tracking everything. Modern companies like Intel, Google, Uber and Twitter only care about things that are totally measurable.

Well lucky for us we know how Intel, Google, Uber and Twitter set goals. They all use a popular framework called OKRs. OKR stands for Objective and Key Results. The objective is a qualitative goal (ie not easily measurable) and the key results are several metrics that will be used to determine if the qualitative goal was achieved. Notice how the squishy unmeasurable goal come first in their framework.

The thing that Doran, Locke, Latham, Intel, Google, Uber and Twitter all have in common is that they don’t choose goals based on measurability. They set the goals that are most important for their companies first then they figure out the best way to measure them.

It is important to separate the goal and how we measure it because when we focus just on hitting certain metrics it can create perverse incentives. For example, maybe as a way to run that 5k race in under 30 minutes we drink a ton of caffeine and take a dangerous supplement. Sure we beat hit our metric, but we definitely did not achieve the original spirit of the goal which was to be healthier.

So by all means keep making your SMART goals measurable, just don’t compromise on what matters just so you have an easier time measuring. The OKR framework is helpful here. Set your goals first and let them be unencumbered by how easy or hard they are to measure. Then figure out how to make them measurable.

A is for Achievable

Oh “Achievable.” How did you get such a prominent position in the most well known framework for creating effective goals?

George Doran’s original SMART had “Assignable” as the A... but he did use “Realistic” for the R. Today the most common SMART acronym uses “Achievable.” But still, whether it is “Realistic” or “Achievable” how is this one of the 5 most important characteristics of an effective goal?

Can you imagine the conversation a rocket scientist who recently read Doran might have had with President Kennedy in the Fall of 1962?

Rocket Scientist: Mr. President I don’t feel like putting a man on the moon in this decade is realistic. What about a more achievable goal like sending a little robot up there?

President Kennedy: We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.

The president knows what he’s talking about, and he’s backed up by the scientific research. In fact almost all goal research says that goals should be difficult or challenging in order to improve employee performance. “We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things...because they are hard.”

Unfortunately, SMART doesn't say anything about making our goals difficult. “Brush your teeth on the first Tuesday of every month,” is technically a SMART goal. However, since most of us are setting goals with the purpose of improving performance it seems like a strange omission.

For that reason I think it is important that we bring some nuance to the A in SMART so our goals will be better aligned with the scientific research.

For that lets turn to the work of the famous goal researchers Locke and Latham. They considered the idea of achievable goals, but only in the context of setting challenging goals.

One of the duo's most fundamental findings over their entire career was that, “the more difficult the goal, the greater the achievement.” This finding held true even when the goal was impossible.

But impossible is the opposite of achievable, what is going on here?

Locke and Latham explain it like this, difficult goals drive higher and higher performance as long as a person remains committed to those goals. For a person to be committed to a goal they must 1) believe the goal is worthwhile (we’ll cover this in the next post) and 2) believe the goal is achievable. Finally the word “achievable” in a scientific paper.

What Locke and Latham are saying is that when we set goals they should be the most difficult goal that our employees will believe is achievable, and therefore stay committed to. So yes, our goals should be achievable in the eyes of our employees, but our goals must first be challenging or they will not drive improvements in performance.

When Kennedy is giving his famous Moon Speech he is not interested in compromising on his audacious goal, he is trying to make the country believe in it, believe that it is achievable to go to the moon. Rather than making the goal easier, he is increasing the belief of his people.

Practically what this means is that when we look at the A in SMART it shouldn't make us want to set easier goals. Instead it should remind us to set the most difficult goals that we can then convince our employees are achievable. The A in SMART should really stand for “An almost impossible goal that your employees will believe is achievable.”

Subscribe to our blog to get our next post about the R in SMART - Relevant. We'll dive deeper into the idea of keeping employees committed to goals.

R is for Relevant

Remember Algebra homework? Or maybe your kid’s algebra homework?

When I think back to those days, there is one exasperated question that always comes to mind…

“But when am I ever going to use this stuff again?”

If you think for a moment about how you would answer that question from your teenage self or teenage child, you might just already understand the importance of the next component of SMART goals.

R is for Relevant, and it is the second “commitment modifier” we've talked about. Think of commitment modifiers this way…

You start a new project and you’re totally gung-ho, then things starts to get hard and the little voice inside your head says, “this is impossible” or “this is stupid.” That little voice is reducing your commitment to the goal because it isn’t achievable (impossible) or isn’t relevant (stupid).

The goal researchers Locke and Latham say "When goals are easy or vague, it is easy to get commitment, because it does not require much dedication to reach easy goals. When goals are specific and hard, the higher the commitment the better the performance."

So once we've crafted a difficult and specific goal the job is not over, we have to continuously maintain commitment to it if we want to keep performance high.

Back to the algebra homework, when the little voice inside our head was telling us that algebra is stupid. At this point a good leader, maybe a parent or a teacher, can help bring relevance to the goal by showing us why it matters. For example, “If you want to be an architect (or something else we feel is important) you’ll need to know algebra.” Or “You’re right, as a NFL player you might never use Algebra, but if you want to play in college you’re going to need to get good grades.”

One of the most important things to remember when creating goals for your team is that relevance is not intrinsic to the goal itself. People can find different relevance for the same goal.

Completing an algebra assignment could be relevant for one child because understanding and improving in math is important in its own right, while the same assignment for another student might only get completed because they seek the approval of their parents, and a third student may only do it because they’ve been threatened with expulsion if their grades don’t improve.

One of the most common mistakes managers and business leaders make when setting goals is thinking that a good goal is crafted on the page. They think, let me Google “writing good goals” and then take an hour to scribble down the team’s goals. What you can't write down is the relevance to each team member. The relevance the goal has for you is probably obvious -

“If we increase our Q4 numbers 10% I will look amazing to the boss and I will be in a good position for that promotion I want.”

But you have to remember that those things might not be relevant for everyone on your team. The algebra teacher might assign the night’s homework because “my students need more practice before they are ready for next week’s lesson.”

Meanwhile the students are doing the assignment for totally different reasons, or maybe they don’t have a good reason and aren’t doing the assignment because “it’s stupid.”

So while you might set the same goal for every person on the sales team, you may need to use several different techniques to create relevance.

Something I often hear is “because I said so," that should be relevance enough. That is true to a point, although over time your team’s commitment will start to slip if they don’t have more.

Our favorite goal researchers have a lot to say about this. From Motivation Through Conscious Goal Setting, “There are many ways to convince a person that a goal is important. In work situations, the supervisor or leader can use legitimate authority to get initial commitment. Continued commitment might require additional incentives such as supportiveness, recognition, and rewards.”

So get out there and spend a few moments with each member of your team, talk about the goals you set and help each of them find the relevance they need to succeed long term. Some will be motivated by the success of the company, others by personal power and riches, and a few may just want to avoid getting fired. Whatever it is everyone needs their own relevance or the positive impacts of your well crafted goals will quickly start to fade.

T is for Time Constrained

Time if the fourth dimension, it is a fundamental part of...of just everything. Everything you do happens over the course of time, so to set a goal and not talk about time is just crazy. Time is so fundamental to goals that you’d think we wouldn’t have to talk about it, but we do and we will.

A time-constraint is just a deadline. It could be one deadline, or it could be a recurring deadline. Maybe you don’t want to just complete 1 blog post, but you want to complete 1 every week.

Deadlines get their own letter in SMART, but in the science of goal setting deadlines are important for their impact on two other characteristics of effective goals, Clarity and Difficulty.

Setting clear goals helps us to focus our energy and motivation towards action. If a goal is unclear it can be very disorienting. Imagine you set a goal for yourself to complete a painting and sell it. On it’s surface that is a very clear goal, but if you don’t set a deadline all of a sudden the possibilities become endless. Should you practice for 1 month or 6 months before starting the painting you'll try to sell, how often should you practice, how good should the painting be before you try to sell it.

This is the type of ambiguity that tanks goals. As you start to work towards your goal, things will become difficult, your paintings won't be as good as you expected them to be and the ambiguity in your goal will become the room you need to start making excuses. "I'm still going to sell a painting, I just need more time to practice." "I'm still going to sell a painting, I just only have once-a-week to paint these days." The less ambiguity there is in a goal the less places there are for us to get lost in our pursuit.

If we imagine that our goal had been to sell a painting in 3 months, we can see how that would bring clarity and help us formulate a plan. We'd be able to start working backwards from that date and determining just exactly what we need to do to accomplish our goal. Eventually 3 months would come around and we would either succeed or fail, but either way we'd be futher ahead than if we hadn't set a deadline.

Everything you do is going to take place over time and so any goal you set needs a deadline to have clarity.

The other important aspect of deadlines is their impact on goal difficulty. Locke and Latham talk extensively about the power of difficult goals to increase output. It makes sense, if you think a goal is easy, you’re probably not going to work that hard to achieve it. If it seems really hard, but still achievable and worth doing, you’re going to give it everything you’ve got.

Time can act as a way to increase the difficulty of any goal. Think about it, almost all of us will cover 1 mile on our feet over the course of the next few days, but some people devote their entire lives to covering that same distance in under 4 minutes. It is something that all of us can do, but only becomes a motivating and difficult goal when we put a time constraint on it.

The easiest tasks benefit most from tight deadlines. This is because an easy goal can be made difficult with a deadline and therefore drive high performance. If you ask me to run a mile in the next week then I might not make any progress until the last few minutes of the last day of the week. If you tell me to accomplish the same goal in the next hour, I'm immediately kicked into gear and thinking about getting a change of clothes and some better shoes. If you tell me to cover a mile in the next 10 minutes I'm headed out the door now and I'll just endure the blisters and chaffing. The same goal with three different deadlines and therefore three levels of difficulty, drives three different amounts of effort.

The next time you set a goal don't forget time, it is inescapable.

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