Today’s market for acronyms is as bullish as ever. LOL’s, OMG’s, and TBT’s are quickly becoming commonplace. Acronyms from years past have enjoyed the modern, shorten-supportive vernacular too: ASAP is alive and well; TGIF continues bringing smiles to tired 9-5ers; and BYOB still rings true for party guests, and book club members alike. One acronym of old that has flourished especially well is SMART.

SMART, the gold-standard of goal-setting, turned 32 this past year. Our knowledge of goals has changed a lot since George Doran first coined the phrase in a 1981 edition of Management Review, but SMART still remains the default advice for goal-setters. For those who don’t know, the letters of SMART are (approximately) as follows:

S — Specific

M—Measurable

A—Attainable

R—Relevant

T—Temporal

Structuring goals that meet the SMART qualifications is challenging. Many times, our initial goals are broad and general. We want some sort of change. We want things to be different; yet, we don’t think about the nuts and bolts of our goals. Applying numbers and specifics feels unnatural, even though it substantially improves our chances for accomplishment.

While the average person may not make their goals SMART, employers and businesses do. Businesses understand that goal-setting is critical for increasing employee productivity, and engagement. Shipping a successful product, or providing a breathtaking experience, requires employees working to their fullest potentials. Something as important as goal-setting cannot be left to pure chance.

Companies and managers turn to the SMART framework because it is immensely popular, and so simple. Managers set annual SMART goals with employees, and assume that following the five-letter structure ensures accomplishment. A year passes. Goals that have fallen by the wayside long ago are picked up, dusted off, and badly salvaged for performance reviews. Somehow, the five letters alone don’t promise a winning story.

Take the “S” in SMART for example. Specific is arguably the most important “letter” of the entire acronym. In a way, it is foundational for the other letters too. “Measurable” is just a heightened form of specificity. “Attainable” is impossible if the end-goal, or finish line, isn’t specific.

Outside of SMART, specificity is heavily studied in academic settings. Locke and Latham’s Goal-Setting Theory is the most widely cited theory in all of goal literature, and it holds that,

specific, high (hard) goals lead to a higher level of task performance than do easy goals or vague, abstract goals such as the exhortation to “do one’s best.”

The evidence conclusively proves that specificity is critical, but there are other important factors mediating the relationship between specific goals and performance. What is commonly forgotten, more often than not, is that the goal-setter must be committed to the goal, have the ability to achieve the goal, and not have other conflicting goals. There are also “key moderators” like feedback, self efficacy, and situational constraints (e.g. limited resources) that affect performance. Shrinking goals down to five letters may be an oversimplification, especially when considering the complexity of a single “letter.”

SMART’s critical issue is its exclusive focus on goal structure. Is goal structure important? Absolutely. Millions of people set goals without structure every year come January 1st. Adopting a SMART framework would drastically improve the common New Year’s resolution. Unfortunately, the perfect SMART goal still does not guarantee fulfillment. As we saw above, one “letter” alone is dependent on a number of underlying factors and mediators that are non-structural.

SMART only answers the question of what: what is your goal? It doesn’t answer other meaningful questions like, who is involved with your goal? How will you get feedback, and track your progress? Why is your goal important to you?

The SMART structure may be a good first step, but it is far from being the only answer.

Citations

1.    Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a SMART way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management review, 70(11), 35-36.

2.  Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current directions in psychological science, 15(5), 265-268.