Everybody who wants to reach his goals is told that he or she must set SMART goals. But why do we often fail to reach our goals? It’s because of the pitfalls of the SMART method, which actually make you fail instead of succeeding. In this article, I will show you the pitfalls and how to avoid them. But first, let’s see how Projectix succeeds in his attempt to get a well formulated goal from his boss Irresolutus.
Getting the formulation of your goals right, is key not only in a project but also in many other areas. However, do you think Projectix has overreacted? Having carte blanche could also be very nice, isn’t it?
What is the importance of a goal anyhow?
Let’s put it like this. If you don’t have a clear goal nothing is possible. Why? Because you don’t know what action to take. This starts with the simplest things. Have you ever gone hiking without a plan where to go? That’s how people get lost in Hyde Park. But seriously. Even when sending their children to the playground parents set a clear goal: “You only go to the playground, not farther. And by 3 pm you’re back.” Yep, that’s how a concrete target agreement looks like.
And in business? Nada, Nothing! At first glance, an open budget feels like you’re dreaming. Add to that a spongy objective like “achieve a substantial cost reduction”, then you have the stuff nightmares are made from.
Why? Because a spongy goal is a symptom indicating that your boss, your client, the CEO or even yourself have no clear idea what he or she really wants (or is too spineless to express his request). Bosses often tend to avoid conflict. The problem is that on some future day he will wake up and suddenly, the project takes too long, is too expensive and the result is not satisfying.
You have one guess, who is hold responsible for this: Well you, being the project manager! And that is as right as rain! It is your responsibility that the goal is formulated in a SMART way (we’ll see later about how to avoid the pitfalls of this method). How else will you be able to prove that the goal is reached and then go partying with your team? To put it short, if you want to have fun managing your project and reach your goals you depend on a well formulated goal!
The same is true when you set goals for other people or your team. How dare you expect your team to go all in when there is just a small something missing to reach that goal, if there is no goal? And that’s also true for yourself.
Therefore, you must insist on a perfectly clear goal and you should walk your talk.
That said, there is a drawback coming with a SMART goal setting. The one who has no goal cannot win, but cannot loose either.
To end with, I have a question for you: Who are you? Are you the Mr Rubber-Spine who prefers doing nothing instead of going for what he deeply wants? Who rejects every challenge because he fears the risk of falling short? Who spends his most exciting moments in front of his TV? If this is you, then avoid formulating SMART like the plague. In this case, I have another tip for you: stay away from managing projects, your own private ones as well as in your job or business. Managing a project is definitively not for you!
If you are on the other hand more like our Projectix who knows what he wants and fights for it, then great, read on!
What is SMART goal setting and how does it work?
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SMART is an akronym for a great goal description, even if there are pitfalls that we will discuss now. It first appeared in 1981 used by George T. Doran.
In the literature, you will find different definitions for the letters. I have researched the ones that make most sense for managing projects and setting goals in a small business environment as well as for private goals and which brings us as close as possible to reaching your goals with ease and fun. Now let’s start with the letters:
Specific: means, your goal is clearly defined with as much details as possible. „Until 01st of May we develop a plan how we can have reduced the production cost for hotter air by 10% until the 31.12.” would be a goal that fulfils this criterion. The goal formulated by Irresolutus to reduce the cost as far and as fast as possible is clearly not specific.
If your goals are spongy the result will be spongy too. Therefore, you should be as precise as possible when defining your goal because it’s the only way to know, if and when you’ll have reached your goal. Specific goals also protect you as a project manager and as a person. If your boss or client has defined a vague goal he can always pretend that you did not yet reach your goal and ask for additional services, upgrades and efforts. And sure enough, it will be without charge and in your leisure time.
Attention pitfall! While specific is good, you will face a drawback if you overdo. Being too specific can make you fall in the trap of never being able to reach your goal, because the tons of criteria you fixed just do not play together and you will find yourself stuck on the last centimetre without being able to reach that goal. An example of a too precise goal: “I want to buy a 2-storey house with 120 sqm … and a pool with exactly 25 * 10 m.” If the maximum allowed pool size is 22 m * 10 m you are stuck. So, for your own good be a little bit flexible.
Measurable: means you should be able to measure the outcome so you can decide based on your measurement if you reached your goal or not. If you set a goal like “In 2018, I want to become fitter.” then this goal is for sure praiseworthy but not measurable. If you say, “I want to lower my weight to 75 kg.” then this is measurable and therefore SMART.
Attention pitfall! When you define a value to measure then do not forget that the measuring is simple to do and is also possible on the way, as it makes sense to check regularly if you are on track. If the measuring is too complicated or not precise or if you cannot really influence the result, then your motivation and the one of your team will take a bath.
For example, when I set the goal to drive from Munich to Paris with an average fuel consumption of 5 litres, then this sounds pretty SMART. I read the consumption on my onboard computer regularly and get a pretty good feeling if I will reach my goal.
Going back 100 years in time, the same goal would not be so SMART because the measuring would be terribly uncomfortable. I would have to stop, use my level gauge to check the amount of fuel in the reservoir and then calculate by hand my consumption. Yes indeed, this was the method of choice at that time. I love this example of a complicate measurement method which can be especially nasty in pouring rain. When I am lazy and I only measure once arrived in Paris, I would have been either lucky because I actually arrived, but cannot influence the final result any more, or I would have required a helping hand before because I broke down with a dry tank before even reaching Paris.
Ambitious: means the goal should stretch your current limits. An objective that is easily within reach is not very motivating and will not take you anywhere. If ambitious is the minimum requirement, the next point on the list “realistic” is the upper limit.
Let’s say you want to learn Spanish. Would the objective to learn a few salutations really move the needle forward and motivate you to sit down 3 times per week to learn vocabulary? Surely not, because the goal is not ambitious. If on the other hand your goal would be to travel to Madrid 6 month from now and be able to converse with the locals, then this is an ambitious goal and you will be much more motivated.
Did you notice, that the goal is not SMART? The M for measurable is missing. A solution would be to buy a language course and set the goal to go at least to lesson 99.
Realistic: means, the goal is achievable from your point of view. If the goal is for a member of your team this person needs to accept that the goal is achievable for him or her. It is always a good idea in these cases to set up a written agreement signed by the person. A signature is a very strong commitment and can also make a difference when you set goals for yourself. Printing it out and signing it yourself is highly motivating. To find the right goal start with Ambitious as lower end and then make it more and more difficult until you do not think it is Realistic. Then take one step back and you have your maximum achievable goal.
„I want to run a marathon in under 3 hours in 4 weeks” is very ambitious. But it is not realistic if you are not a well-trained marathon athlete. If you set this goal in 12 months from now it might become realistic, depending on your physical condition.
Attention pitfall! Don’t let somebody who has never actually achieved the goal at hand let tell you something isn’t realistic. There are too many moving pieces that influence your possibilities to reach a certain goal. Just to name a view: Economic situation, technical possibilities, scientific research about your topic and last but not least, your personality, knowhow and situation. It’s up to you to acquire the knowledge to make an educated guess and then go for it.
Timed: means, the goal must have an end date linked to it. This is the most critical point in goal setting and the biggest “pit” you can fall into. In fact, not getting the timing right can make or break your goal.
Why you should always set an end date:
1.) To have a concrete end date can be very motivating and provides a strong focus. A team that knows it has only 4 weeks to go will be much more willing to give it’s best when you ask them to go all in as if the request comes without an end date.
2.) If the end date is not set, nobody (you included) will do whatsoever to work towards the goal, because there is still lots of time. That’s logic because there are always urgent tasks at hand which “need to be done” first.
3.) You may end up in an endless time warp. The goal cannot be met any more or has become totally irrelevant and the project has lost its purpose, but no one says STOP because there is still time left. In this case, you will experience endless pain. I myself prefer rather a painful end.
Attention pitfall! You should not set a concrete end date and rather go for as fast as possible, because…
1.) as Tony Robbins puts it “People largely overestimate what can be done in a year and underestimate what can be done in a decade!”. Translated to normal humans, we tend to set great goals with a too tight time frame and miss the goal, because either we are too late or because we give up on the way when we see that reaching the SMART goal on time is impossible. And then we feel like a failure.
2.) an end date which is too far away can actually be counterproductive. As James Clear states, “people are bad at focussing on goals with an end date farther away than 3 months”. They tend to procrastinate and not get into action, which at the end leads to giving up, when the end is coming close because in the remaining short timeframe the goal cannot be reached.
As even professional planners struggle setting the right timeframe for projects and goals it is virtually impossible for an untrained individual to hit home concerning the T of the SMART system. This leads to frustration and can bring you in a negative feedback loop, by making you miss your goals over and over, which then leads to less success, compared to if you didn’t set a time for your goals in the first place
It makes sense to set goals the SMART way, but you should avoid the pitfalls. And the biggest of all is T as Timed, as virtually nobody is able to get it right.
So, what to do about this one? I tend to avoid setting a date for a goal, unless absolutely necessary, for example the date for a wedding or any other big event that needs planning beforehand and needs to take place at a certain date.
I set a goal and leave the question of timing to an “as fast as possible”. Then, I define and focus on the actions which inevitably will lead me to my goal and I commit to the process of working on the actions every day. And as my goal is SMAR(T), I measure my progress regularly so that I can be sure the actions I take will lead me to the goal.
Using these tactics, I can enjoy the progress and head straight to the goal and I avoid the frustration of missing it on the time line.
To be honest, setting goals SMART and if that would be all you would consider it would actually suck – to come back to my (slightly exaggerated) headline. That’s why we have developed our enhanced and stress-tested SMART+ Goal Setting System. Find out what’s behind the PLUS and download it now!
Now it’s your turn!
Download our SMART+ Goal Setting Guide to learn to set goals in an easy and efficient way and reap the benefits of leading your life with focus!
It’s all about exercising. At the beginning, it might feel awkward but soon setting great goals and reaching them will have become your second nature. Success will prove you right.
I would like to hear from you how you would react being in the same situation than Projectix. I am looking forward to reading your solution.
Check out how you behave in private and in business. Do you use the SMART method to set your goals? How did it go? And if you didn’t use it? Did you reach that goal? Are you where you want to be?
Questions or feedback on this post? Please write it in the comments!