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6 Reasons Why “Smart” Goal-Setting Does Not Work

Sept. 27, 2017
Focusing on targets is an important factor in defining "success", but you must measure progress and effort too

You’re probably familiar with the concept of Smart goals. “Smart” is an acronym for ideas, tactics, or methods that are developed to be 1) specific, 2) measurable, 3) achievable, 4) realistic, and 5) time-bound. Organizations use Smart goals for two reasons. When addressing each aspect identified by the acronym, the anticipated result is clearly defined for employees, and sets a timeline for overcoming procrastination and motivating employees to stay on track.

It is easy to see how you would expect Smart goals to work best when you are trying to reach a well-defined target under a steady-state situation. Where you can see the target as realistic and the progress within your control, they are great for providing short-term direction and planning progress toward a long-term goal. But when should you abandon them?

It is dangerous to apply Smart goals to every pursuit. For people who are aiming for big dreams that venture into new territories, or organizations that truly want to achieve greatness, especially in a dynamic environment, Smart goals are often inadequate, and sometimes detrimental.

To avoid these mistakes, it is helpful to know where and why this goal-setting approach will not work. Here are six primary problems inherent to Smart goal-setting.

1. Focus is too narrow. Fixating on a single Smart goal, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing it as the only goal. Looking at the Smart goal in the context of the competing and contributing goals likely will influence your actions regarding the single goal.

2. Measuring success and failure. Smart goals need to be specific and measurable, so you can objectively evaluate if you have reached the goal or not. It is effective for managing progress when working on projects in a controllable environment. However, if you apply the same criteria to measure success or failure, it can motivate people in the wrong way, and when the situation is dynamic or extreme, it can even be dangerous.

When success is measured by a Smart goal, people end up pursuing that goal for a narrowly defined success, and letting that exclusive target take over their identity. Failure to meet a Smart goal can make employees feel as though their lives are meaningless. They only see losses, unable to appreciate what they have. What drives them to success when things go well may send them into a tailspin when they do not.

3. Short-term result vs. long-term success. Turn to any business or market news channel, and you will find a big portion of daily news is about how much the stock price of companies rises or falls because they beat or missed their quarterly earnings target or market expectations. To an outsider, earnings appear to be the most prominent metric for a company’s performance. Because of the likely severe market reaction for missing their earnings target, firms commonly take extreme measures to meet earnings projections, even if it means sacrificing long-term growth or manipulating their accounting.

Such companies operate as if the world ends every 90 days. They prioritize meeting Wall Street’s quarterly Smart goals over their customers’ interests and their own long-term success. Eventually, that strategy will be fatal for a business.

In more critical situations, how can a Smart goal help guide your strategy when you face competitors engaged in unethical tactics, and you are at risk of missing your financial target or losing your competitive ranking?

4. Giving up too soon, and the all-or-nothing approach. A Smart goal can be discouraging, before or after the goal is reached. Have you ever heard yourself saying, “I don’t have time,” when excusing yourself for not doing what you had planned for that day? Time management is one of the most popular applications of Smart goals. When you think about allocating time to a certain task, it’s often in terms of all-or-nothing.

Smart goals are viewed as complete entities, and when you are unable to do everything as planned, you may become discouraged and give up the entire goal. When a Smart goal is the sole focus of your hard work, it often becomes a negative incentive. When all eyes are on that Smart goal, people and organizations lose sight of their achievements and the fulfillment of the journey.

5. Failing to realize one’s full potential. Even when people or organizations reach their Smart goals, it may not be a real success. There are plenty of examples of smart people starting a company based on a great idea or product. They work hard to bring their dream product to life or to take the company from private to a public, offering to attract investment money. Once they reach their Smart goal, they relax and the company’s growth curve dramatically flattens. They could have built a great company with many brilliant products, but instead they rested on their laurels.

Working toward Smart goals can motivate you along the way, but they can seem like a stop sign that makes you fall short of your full potential. Setting goals that are too easy will not move people to achieve more than their minimum potential. They miss the opportunity for growth, and they will never know what they might have achieved if the goal had been more challenging.

6. “Realistic” and “Achievable” can be misleading. When you are pursuing “realistic” and “achievable” goals, such as your next promotion, next higher sales numbers, next award, you should pause to ask, “At what cost?”

Self-driven people have a tendency to overload themselves with too many high priorities. An item is number one for a reason, so if you set too many number-one priorities the number meaningless. Something has to be number two, number three, and so on.

When you look at each goal in isolation, it’s seen as realistic and achievable within a certain time frame. The tendency is to be overly ambitious, thinking, “I will figure out a way to fit it in!” But “realistic” is a relative term, not an absolute term. It is not just considering, “Is this goal realistic considering my capability?” but also, “Is this goal realistic considering all my other goals?”

Pursuing a dream and fulfilling your greater purpose requires a broad vision, one that goes well beyond the immediacy of the next Smart goal. Smart goals can serve as checkpoints in your journey to keep you on the path toward success. It is important to measure progress by growth and effort as well, because it is the growth and learning along the way that are of the most value. “After the Summit: New Rules for Reaching Your Peak Potential in Your Career and Life.”

Having achieved the “explorers grand slam” (climbing the highest peak on each continent and ski to both poles), Lei draws on her experiences to emphasize perseverance and determination that audiences can use at work or at home. Learn more at  

About the Author

Lei Wang | Author, lecturer, and explorer

Lei Wang is an adventurer, motivational speaker and author of After the Summit: New Rules for Reaching Your Peak Potential in Your Career and Life. Having achieved the “Explorers Grand Slam” (climbing the highest peak on each continent and ski to both poles), Lei draws on her experiences to emphasize perseverance and determination that audiences can use at work or at home. Learn more at