SMART Goals but Getting Dumber

People set SMART goals all the time but why do they not achieve them? What do we do about them?

In the yearly MBO ritual, managers set objectives with their team. Most organizations use the SMART goal setting or a variation of it for this objectives setting process.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Attainable, Realistic/Relevant and Time-bound.12

For example, a department has a high level “Corporate social and environmental responsibility” goal and Sally, a staff in this department might set a SMART goal of reducing marketing brochure wastage by 20% over the coming 9 months. This fits the SMART criteria.

However, it misses a critical point. What good would specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound goals be if they are not the right goals or if there is no commitment to it?

People set SMART goals all the time but why do they not achieve them? What do we do about them? By setting smarter goals, being even more specific? What if Sally does not really have any strong motivations for being environmentally conscious?

Commitment unleashes discretionary efforts to go beyond the minimal requirements. Sally needs to feel committed and motivated about a goal she has set. Before getting to the SMART technicalities, the first step of the MBO process should actually be to explore the level of commitment. Managers and staff need to explore any one of the following questions:

– “What’s the crossroad you’re at right now in your work/life?”
– “What do you see as a possibility for the current year?”

 These questions go to the heart of meaning and purpose of the staff. For example, Sally wants to help underprivileged children. By having this conversation, her manager gets a better picture of her aspirations, contracts with her to make a more meaningful “Corporate social and environmental responsibility” goal.

Now, both Sally and her manager create a win-win situation; Sally has an opportunity to help the underprivileged children while the manager fulfils part of the “Corporate social and environmental responsibility” goals.

There is also a positive spillover effect; when Sally fulfills her wish, she comes to work feeling happier. Research on positive psychology by Martin Selig man has shown that this “happiness effect” spills over to work leading to higher energy and commitment.

Of course, there is a chance that a business goal has absolutely no meaning to the staff. However,there will always be some aspects that have meaning. Understand what’s meaningful to the staff and make the connection to the work goals. Celebrated author of Drive, Daniel Pink argues that “purpose” is one of the most important driving force or motivation for success.122

An Organizational Development Director from a global financial institution shared that when the “crossroad” question was posed in a management retreat, it created a tremendous amount of dialogue and understanding between the Chief Executive Officer and one of his direct report. The CEO was about to assign the direct report to take up a post in Asia without realizing that he was facing a major crossroad in life – he is planning to get married and start a family.

True commitment unleashes discretionary efforts to go beyond the minimal requirements. Too often we assume that staff should be committed, after all they are paid a salary to do their work. However, many times we simply get lip service or get totally caught off guard by an employee sudden actions and we wondered why we did not see it coming. So before signing off the SMART goals, managers also need to test for commitment, for example;

– “To what extent are you committed to this in the next six months, twelve months?”
– “Do you have any other concerns or questions?”

Granted, it is hard to tell one’s manager that he is less than committed. But this is exactly why you need to ask and stay silent as you watch your staff’s reactions. Either way, it calls for a good conversation on what matters. As Peter Block puts it in the title of his book, “The Answer to How is Yes” – get to what holds meaning to the staff and the how will take care of itself.

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Written by
Lee Kang Yam
Chief Learning Curator
Flame Centre

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