January 4, 2021

When are SMART goals not-so-smart?

Kurt Bittner

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EBM

The most recent evolution of the Evidence-Based Management Guide (EBM) introduced three kinds of goals:

  • A Strategic Goal, which is something important that the organization would like to achieve. This goal is so big and far away, with many uncertainties along the journey that the organization must use empiricism. Because the Strategic Goal is aspirational and the path to it is uncertain, the organization needs a series of practical targets, like
  • Intermediate Goals, achievements of which will indicate that the organization is on the path to its Strategic Goal. The path to the Intermediate Goal is often still somewhat uncertain, but not completely unknown.
  •  Immediate Tactical Goals, critical near-term objectives toward which a team or group of teams will work help toward Intermediate Goals.

SMART describes a set of criteria that are frequently applied to goals, asserting that goals should be:

  • Specific – target a specific area for improvement.
  • Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  • Assignable – specify who will do it.
  • Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
  • Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

SMART goals have permeated many organizations, with many people accepting that a good goal must meet the SMART criteria. But is this really always a good approach?

In our work, we have found that good goals are always specific and measurable; if they are not, they cannot provide useful targets toward which organizations can work. Vague goals whose achievement cannot be measured are merely empty aspirations. But the other SMART criteria are, in our opinion, outdated and even dangerous because they encourage a simplistic and short-sighted approach to management.

Complexity Matters

In a complex world, however, an organization will rarely know whether achievement of a goal is realistic; it is often not possible to know whether a goal is achievable without learning more about the problem. Consider the case of mitigating the effects of a newly discovered disease: it is not possible to know, exactly, if this is possible, but that does not mean that the goal is a poor one, only that more needs to be learned to know if the problem is solvable.

Time-Scale Matters

It is similarly impossible, when dealing with complex problems, to know when a goal can be achieved because so much is unknown; only simple problems can be solved predictably enough to put their solution on a schedule. But most ambitious goals worth pursuing are not governed by simple cause-and-effect relationships; they require experimentation and analysis to uncover possible causes and alternative solutions before anyone can determine when the goal might be achieved.

A solution to this problem is to shorten the time-scale for the goal. Strategic goals are hardly ever simple enough to predict when they can be achieved, but an Intermediate goal is sometimes narrow enough to be somewhat certain about its achievement, and a Tactical goal whose time-scale is measured in a month or less is sufficiently constrained that its achievement, while not assured, should at least be reasonably expected. 

Scrum talks about two types of goals: Sprint Goals and Product Goals. Since Sprint Goals are very short-term, tactical goals, it makes sense for them to be time-boxed, but Product Goals, which are usually Intermediate Goals, are not time-boxed. Product Goals can also be Strategic Goals, but more typically an organization will have a variety of products and services, each with their own goals that in turn contribute to a broader, more ambitious Strategic Goal.

Empowerment Matters

In some interpretations, the “A” in SMART says that goals should be assignable, while in others the “A” says that goals should be attainable. We prefer to ignore the attainable interpretation since attainable is the same as realistic, which we have discussed above.

At the foundation of Scrum is the empowered, self-managing team of people who have the freedom to make their own decisions about which work they take on, which means, for us, the goals they agree to, as well as being free to decide how they do that work.  

Strategic Goals typically apply to the whole organization, not just a team or an individual. Intermediate goals are typically taken on by teams or groups of teams, but they are not assigned to those teams so much as they are created by those teams as goals that they believe they need to achieve in order to make progress toward the Strategic Goal. They may be influenced by stakeholders, as is the case in forming Product Goals, but Intermediate Goals are best determined collaboratively, guided by both top-down strategy as well as bottom-up intelligence.

Tactical goals are the domain of the team. In the context of Scrum, the Scrum Team together to determine the Sprint Goal. The Sprint Goal helps to guide the day-to-day decisions of the team, as well as setting an achievement target toward which the team works.

Conclusion

While all goals should be specific and measurable, forcing them to be assignable, realistic, and time-related can result in goals that are short-sighted and tactical when they should be ambitious and strategic. Making them assignable can disempower teams, removing their autonomy and dampening their commitment and creativity. 

Goal setting is an opportunity for collaboration and alignment around important goals. It’s a chance to discuss, refine, and sometimes refocus based on feedback. In a complex world, engaging everyone in seeking toward better goals using feedback to inspect and adapt helps organizations to improve the quality and value of the outcomes they provide to their customers

EBM