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It’s been more than 35 years since organizations began to embrace SMART goals.

A SMART goal, which traces back to a 1981 Management Review article by George Duran, is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-Focused and Time-bound. SMART goals gained currency as part of the popularity of the management-by-objectives concept created by consultant and author Peter Drucker.

They became popular for good reason. SMART is a useful way to think about the goals you create for your organization.

But there’s a better, simpler approach.

In this post, we’ll discuss some of the drawbacks to SMART goals. In the next, I’ll offer you an alternative.

The main drawbacks to SMART goals involve the S and the A. Let’s take them one at a time.

Is S for Specific or Stifling?

Goals do need to be specific. The problem is…what does specific mean? What’s specific enough to guide one person, may leave another person confused and flailing. Or, it might be stifling for another.

We do an exercise occasionally in our leadership training sessions. We give everyone in the group 20 minutes to go out and come back with a rock and present it to the group. When they return, we make a point of rejecting each offering.

This one’s too sharp. That one’s too smooth. This one’s too shiny. We send them out again, and reject every rock on the second try. It doesn’t take long before most of the group is frustrated. What’s wrong with these rocks? You haven’t told us exactly what makes one rock good and another bad. How are we supposed to know what you want if you don’t tell us?


The problem is this: The same specific goal that provides critical guidance to the new employee is demotivating micromanagement for a veteran top performer. One size doesn’t fit all. Imagine telling your 20-year-old son, on leave from the army, “Clean your room.” That’s all the instruction he needs. He’s been professionally trained to maintain a neat bedroom. Now, go tell his 10-year-old brother, “Clean your room,” with no further instruction. Good luck with that.

So, a specific goal is helpful, but it’s only the start. You need to provide the right level of detail for each member of your team.

You Can’t Transform with Attainable Goals

The other aspect of SMART goals we’ll take on here is Attainable. As with Specific, there’s nothing on the surface to object to. What’s the point in having a goal if you can’t attain it?

The problem is that sometimes attainable goals lead to the wrong result. Sometimes, the only way to compete is to set a stretch goal that’s very difficult to attain. In fact, it’s impossible to attain, unless you fundamentally rethink what you’re doing.

In the pager market of the late 1980s, Motorola was at a huge competitive disadvantage. Japanese pager manufactures enjoyed dramatically lower costs due to their significantly better production quality. At the time, Motorola measured manufacturing quality in percent (defects per hundred), while its Japanese competitors were measuring quality in defects per million.

Motorola couldn’t afford to typical attainable goals of 10% improvement – it would never have caught up to its competitors. Instead, it set stretch targets to improve quality by 10 times every two to three years. At the surface, these goals were NOT attainable.

The impact of these stretch goals was dramatic. Motorola had to change every system, structure and process involved in pager production and completely re-skill their team members to achieve these goals. Had they set “Attainable” goals, they would not have been able to transform the organization sufficiently enough to be successful.

Setting stretch goals requires organizations to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. They demolish current thinking, motivate action and challenge everyone to change everything except the organization’s core values and principles. Because they’re so radical, they’re best used in a mix with more conventional, incremental goals.

But an organization that focuses too much on making its goals attainable might miss a critical chance to transform itself.

Next: If SMART goals are out, what should take their place?

Intrigued by what you’re reading? Download our white paper on converting strategy into execution and learn more about us by visiting our website. WhiteWater International Consulting, Inc. helps organizations understand the challenges they face and helps enterprises achieve and sustain outstanding performance through unleashing the passion and capabilities of its people. Because an organization is only as good at the people who power it.

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