Why SMART objectives aren’t always smart


Ever been in a meeting where people are discussing objectives or goals? Someone invariably says, ‘We must make our objectives SMART!’ and everyone else nods sagely in agreement. We often use the same logic with personal goals.

The idea is sound enough. If your goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound, it focusses the mind, allows you to say for certain whether or not something was achieved, and you can keep tabs on whether you’re on track along the way.

But there’s a big and often overlooked problem with this type of goal setting, and that’s our old friend human nature. I’ve written about intrinsic motivation before – it means the inherent satisfaction in working on something, above and beyond any material rewards (or threat of punishment.) Psychologists have discovered that the way we set goals affects our motivation and the extent to which we meet them. So whilst SMART objectives can be useful some of the time, you have to be careful and avoid using them in all situations.

Take learning a language for example. You could set yourself a SMART objective something like ‘Learn French and score an A at the test before the end of the year.’ This is what phychologists call a ‘performance goal.’ Getting the A is the target. The alternative is setting a ‘learning goal’ which would be more along the lines of ‘Improve my French to get more out of my holidays there, make French friends and get absorbed in the culture.’

The learning goal is not SMART. It’s actually pretty vague, but what it promotes is mastery of the topic – that is, continual improvement towards perfection (which of course can never be fully reached.) The big difference is that mastery is one of the factors which really motivates humans. Performance goals less so. In studies with children, it has been shown that they perform better at tasks when the goals are learning, not just performance. For example, when the focus is on a specific measure of performance, it has been shown that people work hard to achieve it, but that they often stop there, short of their potential to do even better. They are also less able to apply the skills to new situations than with a broader learning goal.

So next time you’re setting some goals think carefully about whether a SMART objective or learning goal will actually help to motivate and get you there.

Finally, another plug for Daniel H. Pink’s excellent book, Drive which talks more about goals and motivation and has the citations behind these insights on goal setting.

15 thoughts on “Why SMART objectives aren’t always smart

  1. From a personal context, I couldn’t agree with you more Tom. I’ve found that, often, SMART objectives can have a negative impact in that they can put you under pressure and strain which can make you lose interest, panic, fear etc – all of which effects your performance and the successful completion of said goal. As someone who falls into the ‘P’ bit of MBTI, I speak from experience.

    However, when placed in a buisness context, SMART objectives work in the sense that, appropriately arrived at (assessing the needs of the business, the capability of the individual and the where the goal fits into the overall picture/strategic focus), they will drive the business – and hopefully the individual – in the right direction.

    How would you make the argument for the learning goal methodology to shareholders when they are looking for immediate bang for their buck?

    • SMART objectives aren’t all bad, it’s just that they don’t always drive the best possible results when it comes to mastery.

      Your second point is an excellent one. The problem is that there is a conflict between what gets short term bang for buck and what builds long-term value. If you want short-term gain then simple carrot-and-stick motivation works: “If we hit this quarter’s target then everyone gets a bonus, and if not, three of you will lose your jobs.” This will get people working on the weekends to hit the target, but you won’t keep the best people motivated over the long-term like this and might end up with a weaker team in the long-run, plus the carrots and sticks distract from the actual task in hand and can actually case worse performance.

      Unfortunately some shareholders only care about the next quarter and not long-term. This is a fundamental problem with public companies. However many private companies perform better over the short-term by thinking long-term about how they can attract and retain the best people and provide the best possible environment for them to do fantastic work.

    • Interesting point Seth, thanks for the comment. Have you come across any evidence to suggest that goal setting is outright harmful (providing it’s not done badly?) There is research cited in Dan H. Pink’s book to suggest that people achieve more when they do, particularly with learning goals. But I wonder if overall they actually make people happier or not? I do like your idea of focussing on making choices. A goal is just a goal, but choices actually get you somewhere.

  2. I tend to agree with Seth. Goals are very much over-rated in my view. For me it is a bit like Getting Things Done – what is so important about getting things done? Why do people assume that doing a lot of stuff is a good thing? Why this continual focus on achievement (unless we have been badly programmed at school perhaps?)

    I suppose it all depends on where you are coming from. Some people like goals. But I think they do come with a very high cost – the emotional cost of not meeting them, for example.

    Personally I am coming round to the point of view that vision is more important – you need to know where you are going. But goals should be looser and more optional – and it should be possible to abandon them for something else as needed.

    If you do want to go with goals we use something called SMART-B. The B stands for believeable.

    This changes things so that the goal becomes a symbol in a relationship between two people. Not just something you do to yourself. It isn’t about beating yourself up, or anyone else beating you up. It is about finding some activity that will support you in getting what you want, and enrolling others in helping and supporting you too.

    Even if that means they tell you stop trying to achieve so much and get a life!

    • An interesting thought in this video from another Worldblu company: “You must have goals. But your happiness cannot be tied to these goals. You must be happy BEFORE you attain them.” In other words, don’t postpone your happiness and make it contingent on reaching certain goals. He goes on to talk about how the journey is just as important if not more important than the goal itself and you must be happy on the way and not just when you get there. Seems like this view of goals is closer to what you describe Pete. http://youtu.be/T8ZFU4FoNvY

  3. examples of learning goals might be useful… john nichols (sp?) has done a lot of work with task orientation vs ego orientation… relevant to this discussion, methinks

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