Are SMART goals stupid?

Neil Morrison thinks that SMART objectives are stupid.

A quick reminder from Neil:

SMART stands for:


The idea being that if you want to set a goal/objective then it should be all of these things…”

So far, so good.

“…which is cute, but wrong.”

Which is where I disagree.

Why? I’ve spent years running personal introspectives: conference sessions for developing plans for personal change that incorporate SMART objectives. Having experienced the development of thousands of these plans, I’ve found that most people struggle to build SMART change goals.

For example, people will say:

“I want to stay in touch with the lab managers in my region.” Rather than “I will schedule a weekly visit to the private lab community website from now on, review the updates, and participate appropriately.”


“I want to treat my staff better.” Rather than “In the next two weeks, I will implement weekly one-on-ones with my direct reports, and give them my undivided attention during our meetings.”


“I will get over my fear of public speaking.” Rather than “I will join my local Toastmasters club when it starts up again in the fall.”

Bearing this in mind, let’s go through Neil’s points:

“My major issue is, that by the very nature of their construct, they’re limiting. They focus you on committing to do one thing, when another – which you may not have come across yet – might be three, four or five times better.”

Um, SMART is not about developing the “best” objectives. You need a separate process for that. Once you’ve come up with relevant goals, SMART becomes a valuable tool to check to see they are actionable. [OMG, I used “actionable” in a post, but it seemed like the right word to use at the time.]

The evidence to this is in the million plus performance conversations that happen each year when an employee is explaining that they didn’t do the five objectives they agreed, but have delivered x amount of other things that have added greater value.

The problem described here is nothing to do with SMART. It’s with managerial process that develops goals for employees but doesn’t include any feedback mechanisms to ensure goals remain relevant. SMART is a tool for testing proposed objectives to see if they’re actionable [did it again]. Period. Blaming SMART instead of poor managerial practices that ignore the reality that continual organizational and environmental change requires timely evaluation of responsive employee goals is like blaming your sneakers for being uncomfortable because they’re red.

“[SMART goals are] entirely left brain and play to a Taylorian vision of business and process. They are the antithesis of creativity, innovation, and the search for exponential value add. It is hard to get passionate, emotional or excited about a SMART goal, because they’re intended to lock down your energy, rather than unleash it.”

Nope. Nothing in SMART prevents you from developing goals that are creative, innovative, and capable of exponential value add. If you decide that having Bono spearhead your product launch is going to make your company the next unicorn, SMART is simply going to remind you that your bold objective should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. While it may be a downer to realize you’ll need a million bucks you don’t have to get Sting involved, you could otherwise waste a lot of time chasing an impossible dream.

“Finally, [SMART goals are] linked to a performance management culture and approach that we’ve all pretty much decided is dead, done and buried – I know, I’ve been writing about it for ten years. The idea that there are such things as performance cycles, that we have the level of predictability and that we can improve organisational performance by setting a bunch of spurious goals and having a bad conversation once, twice or even four times a year through a “performance” review is nothing more than a hopeful, collective misnomer.”

OK, it should be clear by now that I’m separating the limited applicability of SMART goals from the dysfunctional cultures Neil describes where they’re “used” inappropriately. All objectives are developed and exist in a context. Contexts change continuously, so a goal that’s relevant and useful one day can become obsolete overnight. To remain effective, employee and organizational goals need to be responsive to circumstances. Like Neil, I’ve no problem criticizing inflexible performance cycles, spurious, outdated goals, and ineffectual fixed performance reviews.

Just don’t lump SMART goals in with all the dysfunctional managerial gobbledygook. SMART goals aren’t stupid when they’re 1) personal 2) the outcome of effective strategy & analysis, and 3) evaluated, modified, and discarded when appropriate. The sole function of SMART is to check that goals — developed by good process and continually reviewed and updated — are actionable. [Third time’s the charm.]

Image element attributions: Tor Refsland and Your Dictionary

Trapped in an elevator with a Nobel Prize winner

elevator 3071581333_0aa74508c7_b

“We don’t have a word for learning and teaching at the same time, but our schooling would improve if we did.”—Kevin Kelly, Out of Control.

One afternoon in 1975, I entered an elevator at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research located near Geneva, Switzerland. In the elevator was Professor R, soon to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and generally regarded by lowly graduate students like me as a physics god. We were alone, on our way to a lecture he was giving. As he ignored me, the door slid shut, and we began to rise. Little did I know that I was about to be trapped in an elevator with a Nobel Prize winner.

Abruptly, the elevator shuddered to a stop between floors.

We stood, not speaking, waiting for something to happen. Some thirty seconds went by, but we did not move.

Professor R swung towards the elevator control panel. He started pushing the buttons. Nothing happened. He pushed the buttons again. We remained motionless.

I was trapped in an elevator with a Nobel Prize winner.

And then Professor R began to shout.

It was clear to me that his outburst was not driven by panic. He was yelling at the elevator because he was angry that a mere elevator could delay an important man. His anger was automatic, a habitual response when things didn’t go his way.

I stood, saying nothing. There was an intercom on the elevator panel, and I wondered how long it would be before Professor R would calm down enough for me to suggest we use it. Meanwhile, we were trapped in an elevator together.

He was still shouting when the elevator started upwards smoothly, as if nothing had happened. Professor R stopped yelling. We stood for a few seconds more, avoiding eye contact, until the elevator arrived at our floor and the door opened. The physics god rushed out.

The lecture started ten minutes later. As I sat in the audience, Professor R showed no sign that our little elevator incident had ever occurred.

Later I learned that my momentary elevator companion was notorious for angry outbursts when he didn’t get his way. No one who knew him was surprised on hearing my experience.

Initially I thought that my brief encounter with a famous person had simply given me a good story to tell. It took a while before I realized what I had learned in the elevator.


Our children are born totally dependent on us. We supply sustenance, shelter, and protection from perils. As they grow they learn. At first sight it seems that their learning is a one way street. What can we learn from children?

We can relearn how to learn—if we pay attention. When my younger granddaughter, Kayla was two I’d see her every few weeks. The changes I noticed between visits were striking. At one visit it was clear from how she reacted that she understood what I said to her, but she didn’t speak more than a word or two. Three weeks later, she repeated the last word of everything I said to her; at the following visit she was creating two word sentences; at the next I heard a four word phrase; at the next when she said something I didn’t understand, she patiently repeated herself, perhaps changing a word or two. Now four years old, she is still fearless at experimenting with her world through ceaseless play, is cheerfully curious, life fascinates her, she is resilient and persistent, she is open to new ideas and experiences, and she is spontaneous.

Professor R, on the other hand, had forgotten how to learn in the ways that Kayla does. All of us seem to move in this direction later in childhood, perhaps because our increased awareness of social context causes us to self-censor natural curiosity and willingness to experiment. Right now, Kayla is out of control of her life most of the time because there are so many things she doesn’t understand, and because the adults around her steer her life in so many ways. And she responds to this state of affairs with great curiosity and ingenuity. For less than a minute Professor X experienced being out of control of his life, but for him, a new situation, a stuck elevator, evoked only anger.

Professor R understood more about physics than I ever have or will, but that day I discovered that I was wiser than him in at least one way. I knew that when you experience minor setbacks in your life, there are better alternatives than exploding with anger. Until that day at CERN I had assumed that people who society had provided as my teachers must be smarter than me in every way. Professor R showed me that this belief was wrong, and, over time, this realization has fundamentally blurred how I see the relationship between student and teacher.

I now believe that I have something to contribute to everyone, and that I can learn something from everyone. And I also believe that this is true for other adults too.


And this is why a peer conference de-emphasizes pre-determined official roles. Attendees figure out for themselves who and what is of value to them, and the conference format supports the resulting connections with relevant topics and people. No one makes prior assumptions about who is valuable and what should be discussed, and people move as needed between teaching and learning, moment to moment.

One can look back at a moment between two individuals and say: at that moment she was the teacher and he was the student. But in the present moment we have no way of knowing the role we may be in. There is a joy in living in a way that avoids preconceptions about our role, and that, in the process, opens us up to new experiences and learning that would otherwise pass us by.

I don’t recommend being trapped in an elevator with a Nobel Prize winner. But I certainly learned a lot during my short time with Professor R.

Image attribution: / CC BY-NC 2.0