The SMART Goal Myth

I have been on a leadership course.

I’ve learnt that if I want to improve my team’s performance I must set them all SMART goals.  A goal that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time bound — I bet you’ve been on the same course.

A good SMART goal is something like:

“increase sales rates from 15% to 22% by the end of the year”

It is lovely, crisp and clear. It leaves no doubt or misunderstanding or wriggle room.

Now I am going to stick my neck out here…

I think SMART goals are STUPID

They are:

  • Simplistic:  Since when has handing out goals been the number one way to improve performance?
  • Threatening:  How does it feel to have your livelihood tied to a target that you don’t know how to meet?
  • Uninspiring:  What does being under pressure and control do for your intrinsic motivation?
  • Poisonous:  Give someone a goal and they will hit it.  Just look what they did for Lloyds Bank.
  • Ineffective:  Goals only work if you accept them and are committed to them.  There is no C in SMART.
  • Divisive:  How do individual goals with individual incentives promote teamwork?

OK, I admit it, my acronym is a bit lame (I struggled with the P), but then SMART is pretty lame as well.

But it is not really the SMART goal that is the problem

It is how we use them that is the problem.

People need a sense of purpose, something they can engage with and feel proud about.

That is not the same as nailing them to the wall to do something they really don’t care about and then berating them about poor performance in their annual review.

Wouldn’t it be better to set a clear destination, somewhere that people wanted to go to, with way-marks, progress checks and the offer of help?

Holding people’s feet to the fire will only get you a lot of burnt toes ~ anon

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  1. Hi James,
    Whilst I have a different opinion to yourself on SMART goals it is based on slightly different learning. When SMART goals were explained to me, the A is for Achievable (it has to be something they can achieve, even as a stretch target) and the R is for Realistic.
    Your team members should be responsible for setting their own goals, cascaded from yours, otherwise there is no ownership. Once they have drafted their goals they discuss them with you for agreement or make amendments as required.
    Every business I’ve worked for uses this approach. The executive/board level develop the company goals and these are cascaded through each level of the organisation. The aim is such that if each individual achieves or exceeds their goals, ultimately the business will achieve theirs.

    • James Lawther says:


      I take your point absolutely, though I think there is a slight nuance.

      You say…

      Your team members should be responsible for setting their own goals, cascaded from yours

      But in reality most of the time the goal is handed straight down with 25% added for good measure so team members often have no say what so ever in what the goal is.

      I think this news story explains the outcome beautifully.

      So when it happens the way you say it should then I agree it works, but I wonder how often that is the case.

      Thanks very much for your comment


  2. Hello James,

    I find myself 100% in agreement with you. A great goal calls to the person-team-function-organisation. And through this calling it pulls forth the best from people. To use your language, a great goal connects with, brings to the surface and resonates with the an individuals sense of purpose – a purpose that gives wings.

    It occurs to me that SMART goals are not created for the individual that is set the SMART goal. It occurs to me that the SMART goal is set for the manager-boss who is setting that SMART goal. A SMART goal enables a manager to better manage (monitor, control, reward, punish) the people reporting to the manager.


    • James Lawther says:

      I think that is my point Maz, there is nothing wrong with SMART goals in themselves, unless they are used as a mechanism for control. Then it all falls appart

  3. David Greer says:

    My Favorite SMART Goal / Requirement of all time.


    I’m making it a national priority to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth, by the end of the decade.

    Everything else about the entire space program was derivable from that single well stated goal.

  4. Marshall Guillory says:

    Have you noticed that employees or contractors that are truly passionate about their work [insert project] are extremely productive, pleasant (mostly), and generally always exceed goals? There is no “P” in SMART.

    Great article James.

    • James Lawther says:

      I guess you both make the same point, a little passion goes a long way.

      But most consultants would struggle to sell a programme on PART goals.

  5. Richard Merrick says:

    Great Post James. SMART goals have their place, but only for teams actioning them on a collaborative basis; and then they act use a useful servant rather than master.

    I would suggest today, the real need is for fuzzy goals. Set ambitions, questions, ideas, and allow for autonomy, self development and autonomy, and a sense of purpose – and allow for error.

    We are also applying SMART thinking to education, with the result that we create a population in the middle of the distribution curve – well qualified at the same things all those around you are well qualified in. It promoted safety, fear of failure, comparison at a time when we desperately need insight, originality and curiosity.

    If you haven’t seen it, look at the paper on worker passion at the Deloitte Center for the Edge – and read the first paper on worker passion.

    We have developed an entire programme round this, to good effect. Happy to share if you wish – but more important; stick to your guns – does your sector ever need originality 🙂

    • James Lawther says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head when you say they make useful servants not masters. I guess that is true of all processes, if we follow them blindly and unquestioningly we end up in the mire.

      Thanks for the link, I will have a read. No doubt it will appear rehashed on my blog at some stage.


  6. “… I must set them all SMART goals….” I bet this only works if the individual sets the SMART goal. Something about “buying in”….

    • James Lawther says:

      I couldn’t agree more Tom, what has “buy in” got to do with SMART goals? Which bit of SMART begins with B?

      • It has to do with if the SMART goals will be effective.

        If there is no “buy in” then they can be perfectly reasonable and they still won’t actually do anything.

        Peter Drucker argues that knowledge workers are more like volunteers than employees and so the internal motivation is more important than any top down approach (which is what the original article was describing for choosing the smart goals).

  7. Alan Nicholsby says:

    James you seem to have raised an interesting and emotional topic but I find myself agreeing with Nigel. I believe that clear unambiguous objectives are an important tool to drive results and if implemented well can be highly successful and motivating but if goals are used poorly then the opposite is more likely to be the outcome.

    • James Lawther says:

      Absolutely agree Alan. I just worry about the “if implemented well” bit.

      Thanks for your comment

  8. James,
    Goals whether they are SMART or not that are handed down, cascaded down or whatever are those of the giver and not the receiver. The only really meaningful goals are ones that we set for ourselves or agree with our colleagues and team-mates. I’m a big fan of bottom-up business planning, as a starting point, as experience shows that when you have a well aligned team and a mission, set of values that everyone has signed up to etc etc then more gets down and performance is higher. Pity that most modern business is not run that way.


  9. Another incisive post, James, and another constructive critique of a very common practice.

    I agree with the suggestions you’ve made on how it could be improved.

    My main concern with setting SMART objectives is that it often goes hand in hand with performance related pay, and is used as a basis for determining how to distribute a fixed size salary increase ‘pot’ according to a normal distribution. The thinking seems to be that ‘we have to distribute PRP on a fair basis, and this is the way to make it objectively fair’. Well it may be fair, but by definition it’s not motivational for at least 50% of the workforce and I’ve found it generally a very unpopular methodology amongst people whose opinions I respect.

    I’d be very interested to read your thoughts, perhaps in a future post, on a better solution.

    • James Lawther says:

      Guy, I am reading the worlds most boring book on that very subject. The only thing that is keeping me going id the hope that it will give me an answer. When I get there you can rest assured that I will steal it and post it here.

      But don’t hold your breath.

      Hope you have a super new year.


  10. I so HATE this annual ritual of goal setting based on something that trickles down to me. My job is a kind of responsive one. I troubleshoot. I take on projects that arise during the year, most of which were completely unforeseeable at the time goals were set. And for the down times I have some crap I organize. How do you set goals for troubleshooting? Do you set as a goal that the corporation will develop more problems to solve? I mean … I could sabotage some systems in order to create opportunities for me to shine, but I don’t think that is what is meant. Feels so phony and manufactured. My goal is to roll with stuff, be nice to people, take on what I can and let people know what I can’t do. And to get home at the end of the day where my real life is. Where I have goals that I actually care about. I care about my job on a day-to-day basis and I care about the “immediate” goals that I work on and my immediate management totally knows that, but you can’t make me care about a goal handed to me from upper management that will surely have nothing to do with how the year actually pans out.