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Most of What You’ve Read About Smart Goals is Wrong!

October 14, 2010

What if most of what you have read about “SMART” goals is inaccurate?
Where SMART refers to Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and
Time bound, and supposedly correlates with likelihood of success.  Well
a recent study by LeadershipIQ suggests that our approach to goals is
mis-guided, out-dated and in need of a major course correction.  Keep
reading and I’ll cover a few things you need to know.

First of all the study by Leadership IQ is available on the web in a brief,
entitled “Are Smart Goals Dumb?” .  The study is a bit weak because it’s
based, as far as I can tell, on opinion surveys, not outcome studies, but
there are several excellent take-aways:

1. There’s no magic to setting SMART goals, and the whole process of
setting goals based upon SMART definitions is a well intentioned
methodology that is not correlated with “kicking butt” or however else
you want to describe high performance.

2. The top 3 of 8 characteristics people attach to compelling goals, e.g. ones
that people feel will lead to their success in achieving great things, are:
    1. Being able to vividly picture how great it will FEEL when the
        goals are accomplished.
   2. The goals require learning new skills to be accomplished.
   3. The goals are absolutely necessary to help the company.

3.  People with goals that match the top 3 criteria above are
significantly more engaged with their work and their employers,
than their counterparts.

Both our culture and the writer of this article frequently lapse into the
thinking that “goals” make people do something.  Here’s a quote as an
example, “we discovered that people’s goals are not particularly helpful.”  

I find that humorous, as I see goals as a tool, and quite distinct from who’s
operating the tool.  Goals can be a focusing agent, a framework for the
needed discipline to rise to another level, but ultimately it’s us, people,
who make the difference, goals don’t do it for us. 

That being said, LeadershipIQ came up with some interesting and I believe
quite accurate, characteristics that when attached to goals, suggest that
people’s behavior will fall in line with their goals. 

I didn’t see them address the motivator of pain, but here’s something that
jumped out at me.  The largest predictor for you or me accomplishing
what we write out as a goal, is our anticipation of “feeling great” when
we accomplish it.

How many corporate goals have you seen that you believe people will
jump up and down for joy when they accomplish it? 

Can you hear the American Idol buzzer going off as you read that?
This is an entirely new method of defining a working goal.  It rules out
most of what we see as goals in the world of work, or at least makes us
redefine them as something other than the goals that support
LeadershipIQ’s definition of “achieving great things.”

That’s right.   We need to feel something, anticipate something pretty big
and positive, something that stretches us, and we need to see that it’s
absolutely necessary…  Otherwise we’re just going through the motions
of goal setting, whether its a SMART goal or not. 

Wow, the universe of work goals shrinks dramatically when you start using
those three filters.  Actually the three filters are all emotion based.  Did
you catch that?  Look at the three emotions with me:

1.  The first emotion is the anticipation of feeling very good, not
just satisfied, but inspirationally very good.

2. The second emotion is one of being challenged, and the positive
stress it produces.

3. The third emotion is a link to helping.  We have to feel like it is really
going to help, and help in a way that’s absolutely necessary, even better
if it is a “do or we’re out of business” scenario.

Most goals I see in the workplace don’t pass these three litmus tests.
Do yours?

Maybe we should reclassify or rename goals in the work place for what
they really are, e.g. objectives, defined outputs, specifications for
compliance, a means of applying metrics.  Beyond that, what would work be
like if you had goals you had a lot of emotion about?  Makes you think,
doesn’t it?

Bottom Line:
LeadershipIQ conducted an interesting, valuable study on goals, suggesting
that the SMART methodology is not what predicts our likelihood of
achieving stated goals.  Instead its a series of 8 factors, of which the top 3
are based upon the emotions of anticipated joy, positive stress, and helping.
Taken seriously, it challenges everyone setting business goals to reinvent
their approach, or redefine goals as what they are for most people, simply
a form of compliance or a measuring device.  Maybe to achieve goals we
need positive, engaging emotions, to respond adaptively and timely to
change, we need pain or discomfort.

The Hazards of Talking about Your Goals
What Makes Us Follow Through

2 Comments. Leave new

SMART Goals, HARD Goals and LOST Goals
December 9, 2010 6:22 pm

[…] Most of What You’ve Read About Smart Goals is Wrong […]


Hi. I just read Murphy’s new book, HARD Goals, and was doing some research and came upon your blog entry, which I take it was written in response to the HARD Goals chapter in Murphy’s last book, Hundred Percenters.

Regarding what you stated in the post re: goals being a tool, in the new book, Murphy backs his argument with some pretty cool brain science, and clearly states that it is the goal that drives the motivation- when the goal is HARD. (The idea is to recreate that rush of motivation we have all experienced where nothing could stop us from achieving our goal- and apply it to any goal). With all the pieces in order (HARD) the brain cannot help but kick in and see you thru to the success you want.

It’s interesting stuff, and I think you might like this new book as it has great number of takeaways re: HARD Goals.

I also just learned that there’s a website set up- HARDgoals.com where you can take an interactive quiz to see if your goal is ‘hard’ enough.

Great blog- thanks for writing it. I’ll come back and check in.


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