If you have read this blog, you know that I’m pretty big on goal-setting for personal development. What might not be as obvious is that I also have an interest in it in my professional work as I do both corporate planning and performance measurement for my day job. This means I have a strong interest professionally in the ways in which organizations set goals and how they choose to measure their progress.
So when I saw an article on the Harvard Business Review blog site by Dick Grote entitled 3 Popular Goal-Setting Techniques Managers Should Avoid, it’s not surprising I was quick to click. Now, I confess I always do so with some cynicism built-in. Often the comments or reviews are somewhat facile, not very insightful, or just plain inapplicable to my work context. Which makes my reaction all the sweeter when I find it insightful and pointed. I may be slightly biased though as he says what I have always thought about SMART goal-setting:
By now, everyone who works for an organization must be familiar with the banal SMART acronym for setting goals. Goals must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. Many wording variations exist, but the essence is always the same.
The stale SMART acronym can be a major obstacle to goal-setting success, and too often, it’s the only support that’s offered to those charged with setting goals.
While the SMART test may be a useful minor mechanism for making sure that a goal statement has been phrased properly (in the same way that a spell-checker is a useful mechanism for flagging any misspelled words in a document), it provides no help in determining whether the goal itself is a good idea. In other words, a goal can easily be SMART without being wise.
Worse, the SMART technique encourages people to set low goals. No one is going to set goals that don’t seem attainable or realistic, but a manager’s weakest subordinates may glom on to the A and the R in the acronym as their justification for setting goals at the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel level of challenge.
It’s the setting of high goals—tough, demanding, stretching—that generates the greatest levels of effort and performance.
Tip: Rather than using the acronym as a way to determine which goals are wise or worth pursuing, use it only as test to check whether goals are well stated.
That wording/criticism is far more eloquent than I would have articulated. To me, SMART as a very popular but overly-simplistic “guide” that people hand out like candy while pretending it is filet mignon, and it is almost worthless. As he noted, it is a good way to WRITE goals in a PM-friendly fashion but is useless as a tool for SETTING the goals.
In addition, he has some good points about the limits of a top-down cascade process to goals, which often sounds like a logical approach that lots of people say without realizing what it will actually mean — that there is no scope other than what the head person already had in mind plus the extreme delays in actually doing it…the point of planning and goal setting is not to have a plan or a goal but the process of doing planning and goal-setting (the journey, not the destination). Having it derive from cascades downward, along with the delays, says the journey only starts when someone else does their part when it should be continuous review.
I also like the complaints against percentage weights, although the reasoning doesn’t go far enough for me. It isn’t that the mathematical precision is nonsense, it’s that it misleads management into thinking it is an evidence-base that can guide them in decision-making. Not unlike the mass embrace of data, it disguises the fact that bad data or misleading data might be far more dangerous than not having any data and having to rely on judgment alone.
Good article, although one of the commenters found it quite facile.