SMART Goals: Not so Smart Anymore?

smart goals
Posted by: Nigel Girling

Is it time to recognise that we need a SMART 2.0 based on agility, not just a set of fixed SMART goals for leadership and management?

Most people reading this will be very familiar with the acronym SMART – usually taken to stand for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timed, though there are many variations. It has been in common use in education and workplaces for decades, probably appearing from time to time on a flipchart or whiteboard in front of all of us.

The end of SMART goals?

smart goals

Whichever variant of SMART is familiar to you, the thing that all share is an underlying and unspoken assumption that you can establish a simple goal or objective some distance into the future and then work towards it down some predictable path.

I suggest many of us don’t live in that world anymore. Moreover; hardly anyone will very soon.

Given that much of what happens today takes place in a climate of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – my colleague Jeff Biggin recently wrote about this), perhaps it is time we sent SMART into the Conceptual Room 101 that is the final resting place of other old-school ideas like command and control, hierarchy, cheap coffee, and an easy life.

The new kind of SMART goals

I propose a new SMART 2.0 be adopted for our new, fast-changing, agile, and demanding world:

  • Sophisticated
  • Motivating
  • Aspirational
  • Remarkable
  • Thoughtful

The old version has, in my experience, often been used to over-simplify, to cut things up into ever-smaller chunks, to enable someone else to monitor progress and to exert perceived (and often spurious) control over the performance of teams and individuals.

Let’s face facts. Our future in the developed world requires engaged people doing innovative, complex, skilled and intelligent work that is at the heart of many organisations – and that will soon be all that is left for human beings to do once artificial intelligence, automation and other technology has taken over all of the repetitive and monotonous ‘heavy-lifting’ of day-to-day operations.

The old version of SMART simply isn’t fit for purpose in that world

My proposed SMART 2.0 version is based on higher expectations of our people and a reflective and more radical approach to solving the complex problems many of us face.

The challenges many leaders face today – and that we will all certainly face soon – probably can’t be met with tiny, incremental steps based on doing things that we –

  1. Already know how to do
  2. Have done many times before.

It also implies that some authority figure – a boss, a teacher, an expert – will know best and will just give you work to do that is already defined.

Is that how things will work in the year 2050? Those starting work today will be the leader generation in charge of everything by then. Is that how they will see things? I very much doubt it.

So, let’s explore the new acronym:


Things are getting more and more complex and inter-related. We know this. We need more sophisticated thinking to solve complex problems and meet difficult challenges. Our goals and objectives, and the thinking we do to define them, needs a level of sophistication beyond anything most of us have considered normal in previous decades. It starts here with thinking deeply about more intelligent goals that will truly move us forwards. It is no longer enough to just set a fairly high hurdle and tell people to jump it.


Our goals and objectives need to fully engage the discretionary effort and commitment of our teams and individuals. Just demanding that something simple, and probably numerical, happens by a certain deadline isn’t going to do it. We need to think carefully about the goals and objectives we agree and engage our people in deciding what they should be. The old ways of ‘top-down’ where targets are just dished-out is hopelessly outdated in many contexts. Many organisations – and many leaders – think that attaching some incentive to the achievement of the goal will provide sufficient motivation and raise performance. We know now that it doesn’t work very well or for very long. We need to build the intrinsic motivation of our people and teams by engaging them in work they want to do to achieve goals and objectives they care about.


It isn’t, any longer at least, just about doing something that isn’t really very difficult or stretching – or about being rewarded for delivering targets that are not truly a reflection of our own performance but are influenced by many other factors. We need our goals and objectives to be stretching and challenging, to fully engage people and teams and to take us forwards toward a vision of a better tomorrow – somewhere that our people aspire to get to and that truly brings benefit to our stakeholders.


In the same vein as Seth Godin’s purple cow, we need our goals and objectives to represent the achievement of something Remarkable. Noteworthy. Significant. Important. Unusual. Even Unlikely or Unexpected. Shortening the journey time from London to Paris by 25 minutes is fine. Shortening the journey time to 25 minutes would be remarkable. We are in a world that wants step-changes, not (just) small improvements. Make your goals and objectives things that have the ‘wow’ factor. That people discuss at the water-cooler or the dinner table. Something, literally, remarkable.


So many of the goals and objectives leaders have described to me in recent years seem to me to have required – or resulted from – very little thought. They were just a repeat of things done before, things that are typical or just specific chunks of a larger goal. Not good enough. Not any more. Agreeing goals and objectives that will be Motivational, Aspirational and Remarkable will require the other two letters:

Sophisticated Thinking.

We need to reflect on our challenges, vision and context to discuss and to think about the things we most want our people to focus on. As an example of the change this will require, consider a sales executive. Typically, they will be targeted on sales and rewarded for either the revenue or, if you’re lucky, the profitability of the sales they generate.

But is sales volume really the only thing we want them to focus on? I doubt it. What about building the relationship with the customer, what about referrals, what about identifying new prospects, or new markets, or shaping products and services through market intelligence?

This final letter requires us to devote the time needed to think things through. To think about: our needs, the ways we wish to grow and challenge our teams and individuals – and the vision and overarching goals and objectives the organisation wants to deliver.

Only then can we start to engage people in the discussion of the things they most need to focus on.

So there you have it: A new SMART 2.0 for a new VUCA world.

What do you think?

Interested in exploring how to set meaningful, motivational goals as a leader?

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