Avoiding Complacency Risks: Make SMART Goals SMARTer

Most organizational leaders have come across the concept of SMART goals at some point in time. SMART is widely touted in government agencies, private sector companies and academia. Even organizations such as the MIT Human Resources department apply the concept of SMART Goals for performance development, suggesting that goals should be: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. While these characteristics of a goal are incredibly useful for enhancing performance, leaders should not be satisfied simply to check the box on SMART criteria.

People tend to throw around the “SMART” concept as if mere compliance with its precepts automatically assures that the goal is valid and will be achieved. However, the successful attainment of any goal relies on effective planning and follow-up. The “SMARTness” of a goal is not always dependent on its content; rather how it is assigned and implemented is also important. Let’s assume the following is a SMART goal: Achieve a 50% widget quality rating for widgets produced by December 31, 2014. Just because we have a specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound goal, success is not automatically guaranteed. How the goal is delegated throughout the organizational chain is extremely important. For example, an article in Forbes addressed the importance of proper delegation in ensuring success of strategic actions. In the delegation context, for a SMART goal to work, it must be:

Generated with good intentions

When leaders adopt a mindset that “Success is a true possibility,” they will be more committed to providing the guidance necessary to achieve that success. Unfortunately, goals are often assigned to distribute blame for initiatives where failure is a feared outcome. It is highly unlikely for a goal assigned out of fear to succeed.

Outlined clearly

When a goal is SMART, it doesn’t always mean the owner knows how to do it. In the example goal above, perhaps “quality” is ill-defined in the organization or based on subjective judgments; in this case, it may be hard for the employee to truly understand how quality is attained. A true leader will provide the assistance necessary to ensure this clarity is achieved.

Owned by the right person

In a busy workplace, it may be difficult to find the right person who has the availability to lead an initiative or to accomplish a goal. In the end, the person who is available may not always be the best person to do the job. Of course, organizations are often forced into this kind of situation due to staffing constraints. Accordingly, it is important to weigh the skills and abilities of the employee against the goal, and either to make adjustments to anticipated outcomes or identify appropriate developmental opportunities to ensure the employee’s skills are a better match for the assignment.

Delegated with appropriate oversight

Delegation is a double edged sword for supervisors. First, they must know when it is appropriate to move something off their plate. Next, they must understand the level of oversight required once an action is delegated. Appropriate delegation involves an understanding of what can and cannot be assigned as well as an orientation towards following up with employees as needed to ensure that delegated activities are completely understood and progressing as anticipated. In other words, do not just ask someone to do something and run away! When a delegated goal is not achieved, it could be a result of lack of attention to delegation, rather than simply poor employee performance.

As outlined above, the acronym GOOD can help you remember how to delegate goals effectively. Successful SMART goals require GOOD delegation practices.

Dr. Paul Eder is a Senior Consultant with The Center for Organizational Excellence, Inc. (COE – http://www.center4oe.com). The opinions in this piece are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of COE or innovategov.org.


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