Video on Goal Setting: Are SMART Goals Dumb?

Every company on earth has set SMART Goals.  But does that mean they're effective?  Not if the disturbing research we've done on goal setting is any indication.  In this video, Leadership IQ Founder Mark Murphy talks about some potential problems with SMART Goals.

You can also read more about our research study, with more data, on our article: Are SMART Goals Dumb?  

Video Transcription

Ever since I wrote the book Hard Goals, I've gotten a bit of a reputation as a guy who hates smart goals. I think it's maybe a touch unfair, but let me tell you where it comes from. We did a study involving over 4,000 people, and we asked them, everybody who set smart goals, "Are your goals this year going to help you achieve great things?"

About 15% of people said "Yeah."

We asked them, "Are your goals going to help you maximize your full potential?"

About 13% of people said, "Yeah."

Those aren't good numbers. It's not that I don't like smart goals. It's that they don't seem to be achieving really, really great results. Smart goals were created in the late '50s, very kind of militaristic mindset, the don't step out of line. A very 1950s kind of mindset. You know, General Eisenhower was president. It's, "We want people to color within the lines. Don't step out. Don't get too crazy." But you know, sort of keep everybody in. It's the era of the man in the gray flannel suit, for those of you that know that sociological study. It's that kind of a time.

The goals we need today, though, are not ... Yeah, specific's good, measurable good. But achievable, realistic? Eh. The things that make up smart goals? Not so good. We actually need big ideas, bit thinking.

When you think about all the great accomplishments you've had in your own life, I don't know, maybe you got that big promotion, sold the company, started a company, finished grad school, finished college, ran a marathon, quit smoking, lost 20 pounds, whatever it is. When you think about all those great, big accomplishments, ask yourself, were they achievable and realistic, or were they just ... They were a little bit crazy. They were outside of your comfort zone, right? Absolutely. Were they easy, or were they hard? They were really hard. Did you know everything when you started, or did you have to learn lots of new skills along the way? Well, no you had to learn lots of new skills along the way. Were you comfortable that you could accomplish it, or did you feel a little nervousness, maybe even a little anxiety. Yeah, you probably felt a little anxiety.

That's the mark of a great goal. It's heartfelt. You have an emotional connection to it. It's animated. You can clearly picture it. It's required, in that you have a sense of urgency. You must do this. And it's difficult. It pushes you outside of your comfort zone. It's not that I don't like smart goals. It's that the way they've been defined, they just don't achieve really great results.

Also think of it this way. CEOs don't set smart goals. CEOs, they set things like hard goals. Oftentimes they call them things like BHAGs, big, hairy, audacious goals. You don't see a lot of CEOs sitting around going, "I know, I know. Let's go take on Google or Apple, but let's make it achievable and realistic." No. It's counter to how the CEOs run organizations. They go, "It's got to be audacious and crazy and hairy." Who even knows what that means? Got a hairy goal? We have to have something big and out there.

Hard goals is just a way of trying to represent that spirit while formatting it in a little more articulate kind of way. But ultimately, when you think about the goals you give to your employees, really ask yourself, "Are these goals in sync with what our CEO, what our board would be doing?" Because if the CEO isn't sitting around setting smart goals and making sure it's achievable and realistic and everything, if they're out there saying, as the late Steve Jobs said, "I want to make a dent in the universe," how good are the employees going to feel about their goals if the goals they set aren't good enough for the CEOs. If the CEOs say, "I would never set a smart goals. I'm going to go make a dent in the universe like the late Steve Jobs did." How good is the employee going to feel about having smart goals?

Posted by Mark Murphy on 25 June, 2015 Goal Setting, Video | 3 comments
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  • Shafira - November 09, 2015

    If inormoatifn were soccer, this would be a goooooal!

  • Kathy Teplitz - June 29, 2015

    Doesn’t it depend on the purpose of the goals – if you are encouraging folks to align with the stated direction, smart goals aren’t inspirational, however they do clearly define what the individual has signed up to do in the near future.

    Smart goals don’t inspire, they clarify a commitment. To inspire alternate universes, use inpsirational goals.

  • Alan - June 26, 2015

    I like your message in theory. However in practice, many leaders are required to make the “tough” decisions to “fit” the ratings their personnel to a pre-determined bell curve, or to determine a set percentage of people to lay off or give pay increases to or both. The easy (Some might say lazy) way to do this is to examine the results and compare it to the SMART goals that were agreed previously. The smallest perceived areas where the goals were not met are counted as a negative towards that individual so that these guidelines can be met. Knowing this, employees are “trained” to put a cushion on their SMART goals as a hedge against being rated poorly.

    I remember once seeing someone rated in the lowest possible category on a SMART item, even when they had received a special commendation on their performance of that item by the company’s prime customer, together with a special award from senior management, all because one participle of the description was not fully met.

    This motivates employees to be counter-audacious in setting their goals, to the detriment of the organization as a whole. Unless this use of rating systems are carefully monitored to make sure that the missing of BHAGs or stretch assignments is not treated punitively, employees will learn that following your excellent understanding of goal setting is a career-limiting endeavor.

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