Every company in existence has set its share of SMART goals (most commonly defined as Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound).
Now, some of those criteria (like Specific and Measurable) are perfectly fine. But other parts (like Achievable and Realistic) make SMART goals pretty dumb. Why? Because too often they act as impediments to, not enablers of, bold action, and actually encourage mediocre and poor performance.
“Hold on a minute,” achievable and realistic SMART goals seem to say. “Don’t push beyond your resources, don’t bite off more than you can chew, play it safe and stay within your limitations.”
Think about it for a second; the late Steve Jobs exhorted his people to greatness with rallying cries like “We’re here to put a dent in the universe.” But SMART goals tell us we’re supposed to tell our employees “make your goals Achievable and Realistic”? There’s a disconnect if I’ve ever heard one.
Consider the most significant goal you’ve ever achieved. Maybe you ran a marathon, doubled your company’s revenue, lost 30 pounds or invented the coolest product in your industry. Now ask yourself:
- Was that accomplishment easy or hard to achieve?
- Did I exert a little or a lot of effort to reach that goal?
- Did I already know everything I needed to know when I started out or did I have to learn new skills in order to succeed?
- Was I completely ‘worry free’ or did I have a few doubts or even some nervousness along the way?
What did this simple exercise just tell you about your history with really significant goals (what I call HARD Goals)? Personally, every noteworthy accomplishment I’ve ever had resulted from a difficult goal. It was hard to do, demanded a lot of effort, I had to learn new stuff, and I even had moments of worry.
I’ve asked these same questions of tens of thousands of people, whether in our formal studies or just polling audience members at my speaking engagements. And what I can tell you is that overwhelmingly, most people’s greatest accomplishments were difficult, required lots of effort, depended upon learning new skills, and even caused some nervousness.
This is quite the opposite of what SMART Goals tell us (i.e. goals should be achievable and realistic). And it’s why our goal-setting research has found that:
- Only 15% of employees strongly agree that their goals will help them achieve great things.
- Only 13% of employees strongly agree that their goals this year will help them maximize their full potential.
A few years ago, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos wrote a letter to shareholders explaining how being “obsessed over customers” would protect them from the ravages of a turbulent economy and, in turn, force them to pursue some very difficult goals…
“If we can identify a customer need and if we can further develop conviction that that need is meaningful and durable, our approach permits us to work patiently for multiple years to deliver a solution. “Working backwards” from customer needs can be contrasted with a “skills-forward” approach where existing skills and competencies are used to drive business opportunities. The skills-forward approach says, “We are really good at X. What else can we do with X?” That’s a useful and rewarding business approach. However, if used exclusively, the company employing it will never be driven to develop fresh skills. Eventually the existing skills will become outmoded. Working backwards from customer needs often demands that we acquire new competencies and exercise new muscles, never mind how uncomfortable and awkward-feeling those first steps might be.”
Jeff Bezos isn’t saying ‘pursue goals that you’re already equipped to handle,’ instead he’s saying “exercise new muscles, never mind how uncomfortable and awkward-feeling those first steps might be.”
Visionary CEOs, like Jeff Bezos and the late Steve Jobs, use goal-setting processes that are radically different than the SMART goals process most companies force on their employees.
So what can you do? When you’re helping your employees through their annual goal-setting process, make sure they can answer these two questions:
- What are the 3-5 most important skills you’ll need to develop to achieve this goal?
- How will you develop those skills?
It’s critical that employees have to learn new skills and stretch themselves to achieve their goals. Not only does this make them more invested in, and committed to, their goals, but it ensures that they’re not just copying-and-pasting last year’s goals into this year’s form.
You’ll never make a ‘dent in the universe’ if every goal has to be ‘achievable’ and ‘realistic.’ The iPod, the X-Box, Amazon Kindle, Google GOOGL +3.25%, the Human Genome Project, etc. were all created with some incredibly big and difficult goals (aka HARD Goals).
The overwhelming majority of human beings have the potential to achieve that same kind of greatness. They just need some gutsy, challenging goals to help them get there.