How NOT to set your goals

Whether you're setting professional or personal goals, there is one goal-setting framework that I highly recommend you do not use - the SMART framework.

How NOT to set your goals

Whether you’re setting professional or personal goals, there is one goal-setting framework that I highly recommend you do not use – the SMART framework.

You’ve probably used, or at least heard of, the SMART goal setting acronym and framework. Each of the letters stands for a word, namely: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based. Unfortunately, this goal-setting framework doesn’t work for a variety of reasons. I definitely encourage you to NOT use this framework and instead use a much better framework to achieve your goals.

But before we get into the new framework, let’s discuss a few reasons why the SMART goal-setting approach is “bad for your health”.

The first reason it doesn’t work is that it doesn’t lead to very inspiring goals. It leads to goals, for example, that are attainable and realistic, but not goals that really push us out of our comfort zone. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned through my achievements, it’s that we must set goals that lie outside of our comfort zone. Goals that perhaps don’t even seem attainable. Or goals that we will always be pursuing, but perhaps never reach.

When I was helping scale Skype for example, before our sale to eBay, our tagline was “the whole world could talk for free”. That goal definitely wasn’t realistic. It definitely wasn’t attainable. But it inspired us to work towards something much bigger than the company or ourselves. Now, this certainly wasn’t the only factor behind our success, but it definitely helped us achieve our $2.6 billion exit. Unfortunately, the SMART goal-setting framework limits our thinking and in my experience doesn’t prompt the bold and courageous action we’re really after.

The second reason I don’t like SMART goals is that they don’t look far enough ahead. While action can only take place in the here and now, I find SMART goals keep me looking at my feet too much, and not far enough into the horizon.

The third reason I don’t like SMART goals is that I find them unemotive and therefore quite forgettable. And if nobody else can remember them and get inspired, then there’s no exciting force or momentum at work within the team.

So, what framework should you or your teams use to set their goals? I would encourage you to use the FAST framework that has emerged out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT has found that FAST goals work better than SMART goals. The F stands for frequently discussed, the A stands for ambitious, the S stands for specific, and the T for transparent. 

Frequently discussed goals have a much higher probability of success. These goals are discussed within our team meetings, our 1-to-1s, as part of daily check-ins and wider monthly town halls. The frequent discussion keeps the goals top of mind, which in turn positively impacts their likelihood of achievement.

The A stands for ambitious. As said, we want goals that feel slightly out of reach. All of our growth lies just outside of our comfort zone and by default ambitious goals prompt us to step into the unknown, to step into discomfort. You won’t make much progress in the gym lifting comfortable weights! And similarly, you won’t make much progress goal-wise by choosing objectives that feel like sure wins. When I was questioning my own leadership ability as a founder, I set myself a goal of becoming the CEO of the year. This felt very ambitious to me at the time, but the ambitious goal prompted ambitious action. I created my own leadership boot camp that I followed over a two-year period and it culminated in actually being recognized as the CEO of the Year in 2019.

The S stands for specific and there isn’t a huge deviation from the SMART framework here. We still need to be very clear about what the goal is and how we will measure success. Is there a metric associated with the achievement of the goal? How do we know when the goal has been achieved?

Last but not least we have our T for transparent. The goal needs to be visible to all so that everyone can see how it’s progressing and who’s working on it. The more transparency we have around the goal, the more likely once again, the goal is to be achieved. And not just as a result of the accountability that happens when results and progress are made public, but also because the transparency makes it easier for others to step in and suggest course corrections when things aren’t going to plan.

So, in summary, throw out the SMART goal-setting framework. Employ the FAST goal-setting framework instead. I’m sure you’ll see an increase in the likelihood of achieving your goals!

Eric Partaker
Eric Partaker

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