When Your Goals Aren’t SMART, Bad Things happen!

“The team was a disaster,” sighed Alison.

I asked, “Poor chemistry? Lack of trust? Didn’t meet your deadlines?”

“Things started off great. Then we went off in all sorts of different directions, replied Alison. “Lots of terrific ideas were suggested, and we had excellent discussions, but we were all over the place. Literally, it was like herding cats!”

Alison was about halfway through an executive coaching engagement with me. It was important for Alison to consider her team experience further — work past the symptoms, and diagnose the root causes of her team’s poor performance.

“Did the team accomplish its goal?,” I wondered.

“Yes… and no,” Alison smiled weakly.

“Our charge was to develop a plan to recruit project management staff to support expected growth in our Northeast region. As the deadline approached, I cherry-picked what I thought were the team’s best ideas, organized steps for implementation, and presented it to senior leadership. On paper, yes, we accomplished our goal.”

“In reality, each team member seemed to be working through their own narrative. Everyone brought their own pile of building blocks to the table. We never came together. I delivered a plan, but it was not something the team thoughtfully created and committed to… I am embarrassed to say that I cobbled something together with the building blocks available.”

“Tell me more about your team’s assignment,” I said. “Your description doesn’t tell me much.” As we talked, Alison realized that the team’s goal was so broadly framed that it allowed for a wide range of different assumptions and interpretations among team members. “Without defining the parameters of the project more specifically, no wonder everyone went off in their own direction!,” she said. “We all had a different picture of what was needed and what success would look like.”

We discussed the missing pieces — for example, what was the goal’s time frame? Did the company need to staff up over 24 months, 12 months, or urgently, over a 6 month period? How many new employees needed to be recruited? Did the company want to hire experienced project managers or recruit a cadre of trainees to nurture and develop?

And while the team was assigned a vague, broadly worded goal, Alison acknowledged that, as team leader, she never took the initiative to further define the team’s operating parameters to create clarity.

SMART Goals to the Rescue

Alison has begun working to make SMART goals an important tool in her leadership toolbox. It’s an approach that has been around for over 40 years, but it remains remarkably effective in creating clear, precise, results-oriented goals. SMART stands for:

  • SPECIFIC. State your goal in a tangible manner, with a specific scope.
  • MEASURABLE. Include quantifiable measures of progress and success.
  • ACHIEVABLE. The goal must be perceived as doable, given available resources.
  • RESULTS. What does success look like? More powerful than action-based goals.*
  • TIME. Every goal depends on a specific timeframe for execution and result.

*Arden Coaching prefers RESULTS over other descriptors such as “Relevant” or “Realistic” because it focuses a SMART goal on the vital importance of connecting to specific outcomes desired, not simply actions taken. 

For more about SMART goals, read Arden Coaching’s blog, “SMART Goals are Still Smart!” and “How to Set Goldilocks Goals That Are Just Right.

Without SMART Goals…

Looking back, Alison appreciates how close she and her team had come to running completely off the rails. “The team goal was so broad that every team member’s perception of it was arguably correct. So we went forward — or tried to go forward —with no common understanding of our purpose. We had no rallying point. No clear sense of what success should look like.”

Alison added, “Over time, I think this eroded trust within the team and made it impossible for people to fully commit to team decisions. No wonder the team struggled to deliver. Lesson learned!”

To learn more about creating SMART goals and developing high performing teams, contact Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.