There’s More To Goal Setting Than Making Them SMART

June 18, 2013

The following was originally posted on

When I talk to clients about effective goal setting someone invariably mentions that good goals are SMART goals – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. I agree these are critically important to strengthening goals. But they’re not the whole story. They don’t tell you how an individual or team arrived at the goal. And that’s more than half the battle.

Anyone can slap a specific, measurable, and achievable number on things and give you a due date. “We’ll have 6 new clients by the end of the quarter!” Great, but how did you arrive at that goal? Did you really think through it or does it just sound good? More often than not I find it’s the latter.

And more often than not I find people lose steam in pursuing their goals if they don’t go through a thoughtful goal setting process to arrive at them and keep them alive.

I’ll share an example of what I mean…

Recently, a client, the CEO of a medium-size accounting firm, sent me the following list of 2013 goals

  • Revenue in excess of $200M
  • Capitalize on our potential in our manufacturing practice and grow it 15% this year
  • Increase our share in the finance practice by 10% this year
  • Build a healthcare practice finding at least 2 new clients this year over $1M each
  • Make our new office in Dallas a success increasing revenue and headcount by 50% by the end of the year
  • Develop a global strategy by June 2014
  • Initiate long term reduction in overhead cost such that overhead is not greater than 25% of planned revenue

On first glance they were an impressive set of goals, and they were everything SMART goals should be—specific, measurable, time bound etc. But then I started push a little. My first question was, “how were these created?” The CEO didn’t have a clear answer. They were his gut senses from what he felt the firm should be doing.

“OK, so is the entire executive team aligned on them?” I followed up.

“I think so,” he answered. It didn’t seem very convincing to me, but knowing he’d be sharing them with the entire executive team the next day, I let it slide.

The next day at the executive meeting, people started asking all sorts of questions:

How would you actually define our manufacturing practice?

Do you really think we can grow it that much? Is that where we should be putting our resources?

Who’s running the healthcare practice?

I thought we decided that we would hold off on that until 2014?

Did someone make a decision I wasn’t aware of?

Do you really think we should be growing headcount as fast as revenue in Dallas?

My gut tells me that we should staff the business out of other offices until 2014 so our costs don’t get ahead of our revenue.

There were 5-10 elements of the goal plan that should have gone through a much more rigorous vetting and consultation process before they ended up on the list. Instead they were created in a relative vacuum. I wish I could say this is the exception, but unfortunately it’s very common.

The problem is that it takes time and energy to really think through the implications of a set of goals and facilitate a thoughtful process to vet them. As a result, a lot of people take shortcuts. Sometimes, you can get away with it if you’re a small group people or the goals are simple, but for the most part, it creates big problems.

When goals aren’t thoughtfully defined, people don’t feel invested in them. Then the goals don’t stay front and center in their minds. And then people don’t hold each other accountable for hitting them.

Here are 11 questions I always keep in mind as I work with clients to set goals. It starts with some of the SMART elements, but goes beyond them. These are written from a leader’s perspective, but you can use them to strengthen individual goal setting as well. The more “yeses” you can answer, the better your goal setting process.

  1. Are the goals specific and measurable – i.e. will it be clear we did or didn’t hit them?
  2. Are the goals time bound?
  3. Was the process of setting them inclusive of key stakeholders? If not, you could have buy-in problems down the road.
  4. Are the goals easy to understand?
  5. Do the goals feel motivating and inspiring?
  6. If a goal is big or broad, is it broken down into sub goals and strategies?
  7. If a goal is conceptual, is it operationalized to clarify target behaviors?
  8. Have the goals been communicated clearly to all involved in their pursuit?
  9. Are the goals at the forefront of all we’re doing – i.e. driving agendas, conversations, planning
  10. Do we revisit the goals at regular intervals to check progress, make changes?
  11. Do we use the goals to hold ourselves and each other accountable?

This list above isn’t a panacea – after all setting goals is tough. However, I’ve found it’s a great checklist to ensure your goals have power, and a greater likelihood of success.