Don’t OutSMART Your Goals

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I read a piece on LifeHacker yesterday that made me shake my head a bit. I’m sure the title SMART Goals Are Overrated was designed to get people to click on it, so from that perspective it succeeded. Wading into the discourse there was an outline of how SMART goals were originally designed for managers to give tasks to employees and how SMART doesn’t fit every goal you might want to set, especially personal aspirational ones. Since I have a lot of experience with using SMART goals both for myself and for others I wanted to give some perspective on why SMART may not be the best way to go for everything but you’re a fool if you don’t at least use it as a measuring tool.

SMRT, Eh?

As a recap, SMART is an acronym for the five key things you need to apply to your goal:

  • S – Specific (what are you going to do)
  • M – Measurable (how will you know when you’ve succeeded)
  • A – Attainable or Assignable (can you or the person you’ve selected do this thing)
  • R – Relevant or Relatable (is this goal appropriate for me or for the person doing it)
  • T – Timely or Time-Based (when are you going to accomplish this goal)

Aside from the obvious reason that the originators really wanted their system to spell “smart”, what does all this mean? Well, when we teach SMART goals at Wood Badge, we ask people to envision something they want to do in the next year. Maybe it’s taking a vacation. Or perhaps it’s another project they want to get done around the house. Once they’ve picked it out, we ask them to think about how they’re going to accomplish it. This second exercise is where the application of the ideas behind SMART goals comes into play.

In an enterprise IT sense we don’t do projects with no planning. At least, I really hope we don’t. We need to understand what we’re doing and why and how we’re going to get it done and when. We already have those constraints put in place when we begin the process. SMART just formalizes them into something memorable. Take an IDC switch upgrade for example:

  • Specific – We are going to upgrade the switches in the gym IDF
  • Measurable – We’re done when the switches are installed, cabled, and configured properly
  • Attainable – This is easy to accomplish and the team has done many before
  • Relevant – The networking team is doing the work, not the storage team or the accounting department. Relevant to our needs because we have more bandwidth in the gym during basketball games and we need to increase the amount of concurrent users and devices
  • Timely – We’re doing the upgrade next Friday when everyone is out of school, which is two weeks before basketball season starts to make sure we have everything ready to go with minimal disruptions. The switches are scheduled to arrive tomorrow.

See? SMART helps us plan the whole thing. Specific keeps us from setting goals like “make things faster” and forces us to be very specific. That goes hand-in-hand with Measurable, which also prevents scope creep. We’re done when we’ve met the measurable case. Setting more measurable things will help your projects work much better.

Attainable just means we’re not setting goals we can’t reach. Switching out one IDC at a time is better than trying to reconfigure the whole network in a weekend. Having been roped into unattainable projects before I really wish more of them had this condition figured out up front. Relevant helps answer why we need it or who is relates to. The accounting department may want the fastest access to the data center or the cloud but if they want us to pay thousands of dollars a month for a circuit only they can use it’s going to be hard to meet the Relevant section of the goal. Timely gives you a date to shoot for for completion. That keeps your project from sitting on the “in process” part of your kanban board until the end of time itself.

Don’t Dumb It Down

LifeHacker’s writer, Beth Skwarecki, says that SMART is deceptive because it creates a bait-and-switch mentality of setting pass-fail goals with a deadline. There’s no inherent motivation to get things done and no reason to set goals that require you to stretch your limits because you don’t want to fail. Looking at goal setting in a vacuum would validate her reasoning. However, looking at SMART as the only source of input into the goal setting process is also setting yourself up for failure.

It’s true that SMART encourages you to set deadlines and spell out what you’re doing. That’s because many people struggle with the process of actually defining goals. Like vacation planning they have the big picture of sitting on the beach clearly in mind. They stumble when it comes to booking hotels and rental cars and when to buy the airline tickets and how they’re going to get to the beach and what they need to bring when they get there and so many other things not even on their radar. SMART gives them a framework for figuring out how to make it all work.

SMART isn’t a motivator. It doesn’t make you want to do something. Instead, it gives you a way to measure progress or force yourself to understand when things need to happen. In the article, Beth says that it’s bad if you set a time goal for yourself and then you procrastinate until the week before because there is no inherent drive to work on things in a timely manner. I’d argue that has nothing to do with the SMART framework. Sure, you set yourself a goal to be finished. But we do that all the time.

We want to be able to run a 5k race by the time of the race in the fall. We want to go to Disneyland on our vacation in July. We want to buy a house before we turn 30. All of these goals have a Timely component. Maybe you don’t have a Gantt chart breaking down every minute of the planning process yet. That doesn’t mean putting a time on it doesn’t help you do things better. When I was working on my SMART goal project back in 2017 I had a whiteboard on my desk with deadlines and checkpoints to make sure I was getting things done. The motivation to finish on time came from me setting smaller, attainable goals and not big red circles on the calendar looming on the horizon.

The last thing I’ll say about the article is that SMART goals aren’t supposed to push you to challenge yourself. Beth says that SMART encourages you to do things that are attainable so you don’t fail. I’d argue that the purpose of SMART is to help you set attainable goals and then help you reflect on what you could be doing better or more often. Yes, everyone wants to succeed as often as possible. Constant failure is discouraging. You also need to make sure you aren’t just setting targets to knock down for the sake of knocking them over.

Goals that are set without a check-in aren’t really helping you. Projects with SMART goals should be living documents that get updated frequently. Are you sailing through your running goals? Time to reset your yardstick and stretch yourself a bit. Run a faster time or go for a longer distance. Are you having struggles with your project because things aren’t coming together? Sit down and be honest with yourself and figure out how to make the most out of what you have. Maybe it’s not replacing every AP in the office but just the ones in the employee areas in the main building. If you’re not adjusting your goals along the way based on the feedback you get from the process then you’re going to fall into the trap of making things too easy to fail or too hard to succeed.


Tom’s Take

I’m a big fan of using the right tools for the job. Don’t use screwdrivers as chisels. Don’t use a flamethrower to light cigars. And don’t forget that you can find other ways to make things work for you. SMART isn’t the superior system for every situation out there. There are times when it’s maddening and doesn’t properly fit. However, running your projects and goals through the SMART filter will usually help you identify where you need to tighten up language or timelines. It certainly can’t hurt. And if it’s not working at all then try to find a better way to make it work for you. Use a tool or framework instead of just thinking you’ll do it your own way. That’s the kind of thinking that leads smart people into making dumb decisions.