When S.M.A.R.T. goals are actually dumb

When S.M.A.R.T. goals are actually dumb

One of the most well known acronyms in the business world is the S.M.A.R.T. acronym.  In the November, 1981 issue of Management Review (vol. 70, issue 11), in an article titled “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives.” by George Doran, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham, the acronym as we know it got created.


The chief contributor, George Doran, emphasized that not all objectives must be measured across all levels of management, as in some instances the focus should rather be on the action plan for achieving the objective.  In addition, not every objective written will meet all five criteria as they should be rather seen as guidelines.  These are important points that I don’t think everyone fully understands as I’ll illustrate.

In the project management world, this acronym has taken one a lot of prominence.  On a tactical level, it makes sense to smart-ify your project goals.  One of the most well known problems that plague the field is scope creep that result in cost and schedule overruns that is no doubt a symptom of not defining and maintaining S.M.A.R.T. objectives, goals and scope.  It also makes sense for functional managers to develop S.M.A.R.T. goals with their direct reports so that their performance reviews are tied to objective, measurable and achievable goals (though in my view, this usually falls apart because the goals are not reviewed and updated on a regular basis because many things can happen in a year and waiting till the annual review makes whatever goals were set obsolete).

But in everyone’s euphoria over smart-ifying their goals, many have missed a big problem with S.M.A.R.T. goals in that you may actually achieve them!  Though this sounds counter-intuitive, it can be quite nasty.  What I mean by this is when you view it on a level whether at the personal productivity level to a corporation’s overall strategic goals, setting very specific goals can limit you from reaching your full potential.  There’s a well know phenomenon called “Parkinson’s Law” which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.  In our particular case, you will work towards your S.M.A.R.T. goal and halt.  The problem with this is that you could have achieve much more but by setting an artificial demarcation point of completion, you will achieve your S.M.A.R.T. goal, congratulate yourself and then stop.

Of course, the other problem that’s more well know (yet people struggle with it all the time, including myself) is not setting real S.M.A.R.T. goals and failing, which can cause you feelings of guilt, inadequacy and failure.

As an example, I’m writing a book and set a S.M.A.R.T. goal of writing at least 500 words per day for at minimum, 6 days a week.  This drives me towards a goal of accomplishing 3000 words per week, 12,000 words per month and 144,000 per year which amounts to writing the equivalent of writing about two books.  I set this goal up last year in my quest to write and publish my first book.  But the realities are that I still have to (mostly) work full-time, train, educate, speak and write other stuff (like for this site) as well as my personal family time and all the other administrative duties one has to do to stay alive and viable.  So I have a spreadsheet I use to set and calculate my daily word count, and though these goals are S.M.A.R.T., I know there will be times where I go below them and others when I go well above them, but the main thing is that I have a goal of writing the very best book that I can that no S.M.A.R.T. goal can every really measure.

The consulting guru and author, Alen Weiss, advocates the idea that a great consultant is one that doesn’t create a business plan because they’ll manage to achieve it, but instead are ones that create marketing plans.  This is because business plans narrow your opportunities towards the specific criteria set forth in it, whereas marketing plans make you focus on all the client opportunities that await you and force you to continually grow.  This is exactly as I just outlined!

So in conclusion, know when S.M.A.R.T. goals are smart and when they are actually dumb.

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