It’s getting to that time of year where we begin to think about; what were our objectives this time last year, how well have we done, what have we learnt and what do we want to do next year?
As a result, in the next blog we’ll be digging into business planning in more detail, but prior to that I thought we ought to take a peek at objective setting.
One of my favourite sayings is “If you don’t know where you are going… any road will take you there” which is, apparently, an oft-cited but not-quite-accurate, quote from the Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tale, Alice in Wonderland.
The vast majority of owners and managers will have “stuff they want to do” which is just a very informal way of saying they have ambitions, goals, targets and objectives. But what is the best way to structure them so you get best bang for your buck?
Objective setting frameworks – the archetype
The archetypal mnemonic for adding some structure to targets is to make them SMART; Specific, Measurable, Achievable and Realistic and Timebound. It’s an acronym first coined way back in November 1981 in an issue of Management Review by a fella called George T. Doran. Let’s flesh it out a bit:
- Specific. Your goal should be well defined, clear, and unambiguous.
- Measurable. You can easily measure your progress towards the accomplishment of the goal.
- Achievable. The goal should seem attainable and not impossible to achieve.
- Relevant. The goal should be aligned with your current priorities.
- Timely. Your goal should have a clearly defined timeline, including a starting date and a target end date.
All of which is eminently good and sensible stuff. And at Statius we use it ourselves all of the time. But there are limitations.
So, what’s wrong with SMART goals?
Let’s pick an example. Let’s say you want to learn how to become proficient in social media marketing. It wouldn’t necessarily fit within a SMART framework. How can you know how long this is going to take? What if you feel like it’s not achievable? What if it’s not relevant to what you’re doing right now? You still might want to do it, perhaps because you need to get more work for your company or perhaps because you are planning on changing careers. Does this mean that it’s not a good goal?
Let’s take measurable. I love the idea of things being measurable (part of the curse of being task orientated) in my final year engineering degree project I fronted my dissertation with a quote from a guy called Lord Kelvin he said. “If you cannot express your knowledge in terms of numbers your knowledge is of an unsatisfactory and meagre kind” A fantastic quote. (It might not be exactly that, but it is something pretty close to it).
Paul Polman and Andrew Winston in their excellent book Net Positive, cite an ESG database detailing the climate goals of some of the world’s largest companies , www.pivotgoals.com. It was set up 10 years ago and at that time virtually none of the companies set quantifiable goals; they were mostly vague ‘statements of intent’. Significant progress has now been made but it is only now that measurable goals are beginning to emerge. The point is, as goals get bigger they take people out of their comfort zone and in the early stages they may sometimes have to be aspirational, rather than quantifiable.
Which then brings us to the issue of realistic.
Continuing with the theme of Net Zero. There is no one idea that will alone make the cut of getting us to Net Zero. Collectively, we have no idea as to how the goal will actually be met. So, should we focus on the goal being “achievable” or “realistic”? Was Churchill thinking in terms of realistic in his battle for Europe? Was Kennedy thinking realistic with his man on the moon? Was Bill Gates thinking realistic with his idea of a “PC on every desk? ”There is a crazy amount of stuff being done to improve the planet’s well-being (whether it’s going to be sufficient is a different question). And the planet doesn’t care whether it’s “realistic” to hit the Net Xero goal by 2030, 2040, 2050 or some other artificially imposed deadline. Marco our coach has suggested that “realistic” ought to be replaced with “reason”. Great idea. The “reason” adds impetus; R becomes about “the why” you do stuff. Again, in Net Positive, Polman and Winston suggest “Results orientated” for the R. If goals are only “realistic” they tend to be set within some kind of existing framework; we want 10% more, 20% more, 15% less. Realistic goals tend to maintain the status quo and will probably continue along some pre-existing trajectory.
So, sometimes, when you’re setting very big goals you may not yet have sufficient knowledge to be able to quantify the goal, but you absolutely know the direction in which you want to travel. So, if they are not measurable does it make them any less relevant or useful? We don’t necessarily think so.
As hinted above, it could also be more useful to replace the “A” perhaps with aspirational, ambitious or even audacious. As Chris Evans often says on his breakfast show “If you shoot for the moon you get the sky thrown in for free”. There is the possibility you’ll get much further with aspirational, ambitious or even audacious goals, than if you stick with “just” achievable ones.
So, after giving SMART goals a good kicking does this mean they are “old hat” and no longer useful? Far from it. SMART is a fantastic mnemonic and is incredibly useful whether you use it in its original sense, or some revised sense given the above.
The thing I’m attempting to show is that slavish adherence to any tool is foolish. Whilst SMART has hijacked the goal setting landscape, there are other structures, so depending on your outcome it might be worth considering a different framework.
So, what are the alternatives?
Obviously, there are the variations of SMART above.
Alternatively, you may prefer to make a PACT with yourself. The PACT approach is about continuous growth rather than the pursuit of a well-defined achievement. It can be a great alternative to SMART.
- PACT – Purposeful, Actionable, Continuous, and Trackable
- Purposeful. Your PACT goal should be meaningful to you or your company’s (long-term) purpose. It’s much harder to stick to your goals if you don’t much care about them! When goals are aligned with your passions you are much more likely to be and feel more motivated by them.
- Actionable. Good goals are based on outputs you can control. Your goals should be actionable and controllable. It’s all about mindset, shifting it from distant or future outcomes to outputs that you can control and are within easy reach. Action today verses over-thinking for tomorrow.
- Continuous. It’s critical that the actions you take are simple and repeatable. Many goals are missed as a result of choice, or analysis, paralysis. That’s when there are too many options or too much analysis and you spend your time focusing more on the research than actually doing stuff that will take you towards your goal. Continuous goals are flexible. The key is getting started so you learn along the way, adapting your approach as you do so. Improvement over time, adapting and responding, rather than reaching the elusive end goal.
- Trackable. Not measurable. Numbers, stats and KPI’s can be overrated and don’t apply to lots of different types of goals. In other blogs we have discussed goals that focus on things “done” or “not done”. A binary approach. Equally valid in many situations. Have you done the “stuff” or not? Did you post today? Have you finished the case study? Did you call 5 customers? Done or not done? This makes tracking your progress very easy.
- PRISM – Personal, Realistic, Interesting, Specific and Measurable
Another framework is PRISM which stands for; Personal, Realistic, Interesting, Specific and Measurable. Obviously this shares much of many of the characteristics of SMART but it also makes a valiant attempt to makes things a little more personal in order to gain buy in and traction.
There are a number of others besides. One of my favourites, I first came across when studying Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP – great subject …awful name) was RAMBO, but sadly I can’t find the reference!
The goal and objective setting arena has been hijacked by the slavish adherence to the SMART mnemonic and whilst being a fabulous tool it does have limitations. The German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer once said:
- “Talent hits a target no one else can hit, genius hits a target no one else can see”
I’d suggest the SMART mnemonic focuses on talent. So, as a result of the above, I think (obviously, you may have a different idea) that a really interesting question to ask ourselves, as posed by John Blakey and Ian Day, in their book Challenging Coaching, is:
- What is it in the world of business that gets in the way of declaring courageous goals and restricts commitment to such bold endeavours… Are we to evaluative, too critical or too risk averse?
And I love the fact that Blakey and Day even dare to correlate setting business goals with Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, a common template of stories that involve a hero (in our case the entrepreneur, owner or manager) who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed! Sound familiar?
So, lastly…shush … it’s heresy, so I’ll whisper it …You could even consider developing your own mnemonic!
Related tools and ideas
- Net Positive – How Courageous Companies Thrive By Giving More Than They Take – Paul Polman and Andrew Winston
- Challenging Coaching – John Blakey and Ian Day
- None – but there are some in the related tools and ideas links above