S.M.A.R.T Goals Are Dumb


John was a numbers guy—always enamored with how he could measure literally everything and everyone. He had statistics tracking how often people were late for work and could predict when the next person would be late, based on his calculations. His office walls were covered with charts and graphs measuring everything, from which customers bought what and when—and the number of steps to process an order—to the average number of minutes associates took in a break. You get the picture: if it was trackable, it was being tracked by John.

John called it his SMART goal strategy on steroids. Specific, measurable, achievable, results-based, and time-bound—at least that’s what it was supposed to mean, but John took it to mean that if it could be tracked or measured, it could be made SMART. Most people who worked for John thought he was a nutter and just a little obsessive. But since he never actually did anything with his charts and numbers except stare at them, he was viewed as relatively harmless.

He had heard about SMART goals as a way to track the execution of strategic plans, so he assumed it was good to apply to anything he wanted to look into. The rest of the executive team humored him, let him track his things, went on about their day-to-day business, and gave very little thought to the strategic plan. John had rendered it inert with his obsession with tracking noncritical, irrelevant items, which were not tied to the plan.

Jean is also a CEO, but her approach to the execution of the strategic plan is completely different than John’s, who is, by the way, her twin brother. Both Jean and John got in the right line at birth and were born to very wealthy parents, both of whom had trust funds and a few family businesses. Each got to pick the one they wanted to run when they turned twenty-five.

Not to be outdone by her brother, Jean decided to embrace SMART goals too. She knew John was obsessive and that his staff made fun of him behind his back, so she was determined not to suffer the same humiliation. She prided herself on being much more self-aware than John. Jean gathered her team and told them that this year she was going to use SMART goals to track the execution of the strategic plan. She patiently explained what they were and told her team to get started on coming up with a few metrics for each goal.

She was really pleased when, two weeks later, they presented her with dates assigned to all the goals. Wow, this was great! She had successfully implemented SMART goals! In her mind, they didn’t need to bother with all those silly charts that John used or even with how they would measure some of this stuff. They had a goal and a deadline—what more did they need?

Both John and Jean bumbled along leading their respective companies, and at mid-year review time, the family board of advisors asked for each to present a summary of his or her progress on the aforementioned plans.

John didn’t need input from his team; he had all the numbers anyone could want. He began putting them all into a spreadsheet presentation that would wow the board.

Jean decided to get an update from her team as to how things were going. She called a meeting, and everyone presented updates on their progress toward the SMART goals. Sadly, the goals that had deadlines in the past six months had not been achieved, and it wasn’t looking good for the future dates either. When she asked what the problem was, she was given a variety of excuses—all of which sounded like “blah, blah, blah” to her. Somehow, she needed to make this presentable in a way that would show the board how good she was doing. Aha! She would have everyone revise the dates to sometime after the board meeting, and she would surprise them with all the progress. Man, did she love this SMART goal thing—it was brilliant.

The board meeting came, and five minutes into John’s presentation, one of the board members stopped him and asked what the hell he was talking about, and how did these numbers relate to the execution of the plan? John fumbled, mumbled, and could not understand why they didn’t love his approach to SMART goals as much as he did. Another board member simply asked what he had accomplished in the last six months related to the plan, and John just stared—couldn’t they see? Were they blind? He was asked to sit down.

Then it was Jean’s turn. Pleased with herself that she got to go after John’s blunder, she would be a superstar. She presented her progress and outlined her SMART goals. One board member asked how the goals tied into the plan and why everything was due in the fourth quarter. Quick on her feet, Jean answered that these were big SMART goals, so they took time, and they were the plan. Geez, she thought, how dense are these guys?

Then another board member said that her progress was no different than John’s and that they needed to start holding their teams accountable and figure out a way to measure things appropriately so that the board can tell whether or not they were on track to achieving the goals of the plan—for which the board had paid a pretty penny to have developed.

Both Jean and John left the board meeting upset that they had not been feted in the way they were used to and went back to doing things exactly as they had been. What did the board know about SMART goals anyway?


SMART goals are just a way of tracking goals, not a replacement for a good strategy. If you set the wrong goal, making it SMART will not make it right. As our hapless John did, many executives get caught up in the over-tracking of everything—somehow thinking this will get them closer to accomplishing something. No. That only creates confusion, frustration, and endless spreadsheets.

Jean didn’t fare any better, thinking that having a deadline made her goals smart. She forgot to create a way to measure them. A date by itself is kind of meaningless if you don’t know how you’ll know if a goal was achieved by that date.

SMART goals are a way to track the progress of the execution of your plan. They are not a substitute for good leadership. You have to have a good plan to start with, tracking the most important goals, in the right order, with the right metrics and achievable date targets. If you don’t, it’s just a spreadsheet that nobody cares about or dates that are meaningless because there are no consequences for missing the targets.

Good leaders hold people accountable to the plan. SMART goals are simply a tool for helping them to do so.

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