I recently wrote a post about why I’m not setting a New Year’s resolution for 2016.
In that post, I wondered if it’s time to try setting some real goals again after years of superficial goal setting and performance reviews left a bad taste in my mouth.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I was taught to set goals in a corporate environment, and how that system does and doesn’t apply now that I live in the entrepreneurial world. If you have a similar background, you’ll likely recognize the SMART goal-setting criteria. They are the bane of many an employee review.
SMART goals are:
My beef with this criteria is that the SMART formula forces one to set goals that are really just a small part of a path to get to a goal. It encourages people to think about what they can do, rather than what they can’t (yet) do. It states (in the realistic and timely part) that a goal isn’t a goal unless you know you can achieve it.
“I propose we start thinking of a goal not as something innately achievable, but as something that might not be — something slightly (or even far) out of reach.” – Melissa Roberts
In practice, since SMART goal-setting is used primarily for performance reviews, that problem becomes more relevant. Who would set a goal — the completion of which influences your chances of promotion or a raise — that one doesn’t already know they can achieve?
If the only reason we set goals is to give ourselves a guaranteed gold star, our abilities don’t grow in the same way that they would in a challenging environment. And as entrepreneurs, we often run our own performance reviews — why sell ourselves short? It shouldn’t be hard for entrepreneurs to set big goals as we are by definition people who create something out of nothing, and then go sell it to thousands of people who didn’t know they needed it.
While it might appear that people who lack an ongoing list of small-scale goals also lack ambition, I think that premise is flawed. The reason I’ve always shied away from setting resolutions and short-term goals is that I feel they often focus on outcomes and not on changing motivations, habits, lifestyles or any of the other overarching forces that govern the choices we make. For me, resolutions always seemed like the step-by-step directions on Google Maps — useful, but overly complicated and lacking a framework that could make everything easier to understand and stick to.
This isn’t to say that “goals” of the SMART variety aren’t ever worth setting. But let’s recognize them for what they really are: plans and not goals. Plans are easy to set and break, goals are not (at least for me). Plans, while useful, aren’t a big idea — they’re a small part of one. In a society conditioned to make plans rather than set goals, I think our idea of what success looks like can become skewed.
Instead, I propose we start thinking of a goal not as something innately achievable, but as something that might not be — something slightly (or even far) out of reach. We might surprise ourselves with what we can achieve when we reach for the seemingly impossible.
What do you think? Is the SMART criteria a useful goal-setting tool, or does it hurt more than it helps? Chime in on the comments.
Melissa Roberts is president of Free State Strategy Group, a Kansas City-based firm that offers public relations, content marketing and community-building services. She is also marketing director of the Enterprise Center of Johnson County (ECJC), a not-for-profit organization that connects entrepreneurs with the resources they need to grow and scale.