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On Setting Goals

goals,planningLot’s of people these days are familiar with SMART goals – S for specific, M for Measurable, A for Achievable, R for Realistic and T for Timebound. In fact, entire training sessions lasting for days revolve around how to make SMART objectives. Gee whiz! Now that we are all familiar with the acronym, it would seem we can all go ahead and set goals more effectively. But the reality as we have all experienced is very different. Many goals we set are never realized (like the New Year fantasies on personal change) because we focus too much on the outcome, not the process . Ninety times out of a hundred, this is a setup for failure…

Let’s look at some typical goals.

For example, in cricket, your objective or goal may be to win a cricket match.

Or in another instance (in a sales environment), you set yourself the goal of becoming the top salesman in the company.

Are these good goals to have? Sure. Do these goals meet the SMART criteria? Yes, pretty much, although you could make the sales goal a bit more specific by changing the goal to “becoming the top salesman in the company by securing at least 10 new contracts within the next 12 months“. Better, but will this assist any better in securing the actual objective?

The point is, does formulating goals in a SMART way or in some other articulate way make them more achievable? I think not.

You can start to make goals somewhat more realizable if you try to focus on the process and the tasks that lead to the outcome, rather than the outcome itself. The outcome is a function of things within your control and those outside your control.

By focusing your attention on things within your control, you stand a better chance of getting what you want.

Let’s look at the cricket example again. The things within your control are:

• How well you prepare the team and how much you practice
• How good your fielding is to control the other side’s scoring
• How fit you and your team mates are just before the game
• How well you all communicate and work together as a team

• etc

But for every factor within your control, there were several that are not in your control. For example:

How experienced and well prepared your competition is
• How good their fielding is
• How the umpires decide during the game
• How well the pitch corresponds to your team’s strengths

• etc

So if your goal is stated as winning the game, then this is commendable but this is an “outcome” that depends on not just the factors in your control but also the factors outside your control. This is a recipe for over-promising and under-delivering.

Desire the Outcome but Focus on the Process/Task

Goals should rarely be focused solely on the outcome. They should be based on the tasks and the process that will lead to success, rather than the hope that success will come.

Armed with this new insight, back to the cricket game. Here are the possible goals you might want to look at now:

• Practice twice as hard as you usually do
• Work on the fielding particularly the catches
• Arrange workout and fitness sessions at least 2 weeks in advance
• Run a team building program
• Watch a video of how the other team plays

Let’s take the other other example from professional sales. If your goal is to be “the top salesperson in the firm within the next 12 months” – then you are creating goals that are dependent on some things that you cannot guarantee or control. A better stated more finite goal might be to “generate 5-6 new leads every week” – maybe also to “ensure a follow up note after every sales call” and so on. Think about it – while this approach does not guarantee success, you advance closer to the goal nonetheless.

A side benefit of this focus on the process/tasks that lead to your goal is that you start to think about the implementation plan – what you’ll do now, what next, short-term objectives, longer term results..

Try this new approach. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover your resolve once again!


  1. administrator

    No I am not suggesting that – in fact, I am suggesting the opposite – a more down-to-earth analysis of small measurable steps that get us closer to where we want to be. That way, we still make progress even if we don’t get to lofty heights. By the way, did youi mean “this could be a very unrealististc way.. ” in the third line of your comment?

  2. Ali Jafari

    Are you suggesting that one must first indulge in a comprhensive SWOT, Balance Score Card and Force Field type of analyses before defining their SMART goals? You are combining goals and strategies (processes being the tools to implement strategies)? This could be a very realistic way to define one’s SAMRT objecives/goals. This would require good decision making practices, that you have indicated (rather forcefully) in your other article, a lot of us do not indulge in.

  3. administrator

    I did not suggest that using SMART for setting of objectives is not useful – what I indicated was that its not enough. In that sense, both of us seem to agree.

    A good way to clarify our thinking in this matter is to look at the “A” in SMART. This is about ensuring that any objective we set for ourselves has to be Achievable. This is fine – but knowing that an objective is Achievable is not enough – we now need to map out the steps that lead in the direction of the objective or goal. We assess what’s in our control, what we can do to create movement in that direction – it is this process that brings change..

  4. Usman

    I agree to your point of view up to a certain extant. I agree when you say that setting SMART objectives does not guarantee success because it lacks the planning part. However, I believe that the majority of the times organizations use SMART setting approach to gauge performances because;
    they can not measure processes or plans and even they find a way to gauge game plans then the whole exercise of tracking performance would become so cumbersome that it would lose the focus after a short while.
    I think that your part of the speech can be sonsidered as a follow up to SMART goals instead of as a replacement to it.

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