Workplace advice: Set your goals - but be strategic about it

Advice from Harvard Business Review: Smart goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound

In 2002, professors Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, two of the best-known academic researchers on goal setting, wrote an article in American Psychologist summarising their 35 years of research. Among their findings:

– Setting specific, difficult goals consistently leads to higher performance than just urging people to do their best.

– High goals generate greater effort than low goals, and the highest or most difficult goals produce the greatest levels of effort and performance.

– Tight deadlines lead to a more rapid work pace than loose deadlines.


So the argument for strategic goal setting seemed settled. Set specific, difficult goals with tight deadlines. The predictable result: increased effort, greater persistence and better performance.

But many organisations don’t follow Locke and Latham’s advice. In fact, there are three techniques common in today’s organisations that go directly against their findings: Smart goals, cascading goals and using percentage weights to indicate relative goal importance.

Smart goals: According to the "Smart" acronym, goals must be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. Many wording variations exist, but the essence is always the same.

While the Smart test may be a useful mechanism for making sure that a goal statement has been phrased properly, it provides no help in determining whether the goal itself is a good idea. Worse, the “A” and “R” of the Smart technique encourage people to set low goals.

Tip: Rather than using the acronym as a way to determine which goals are wise or worth pursuing, use it only as test to check whether goals are well stated.

Cascading goals: Goal-setters are frequently advised that goals should cascade down from the top of the organisation. Certainly no one should set goals that thwart those set by people higher in the organisation but if the concept of cascading goals is applied too rigidly, goal-setting drags on interminably; everybody blames the guy one step above for slowing the process.

Tip: Free the goal-setting process from any rigid requirement that individual goals must be tightly linked to the supervisor’s goals.

Using percentage weights: Certainly some goals are more important than others, but assigning percentage weights to goals to indicate their relative importance is not a useful exercise. Why? It's impossible to accurately identify the relative importance of goals at, for example, a 5 per cent level of granularity. Spending time on these distinctions isn't productive.

Tip: Don’t assign percentage weights to goals. Instead, indicate high, medium and low, or list goals in the approximate order of their importance.

It's easy to think that there's a technique that's going to make goal setting easy or straightforward, but there isn't. Just avoid being blindly constrained by the Smart test, be cautious about cascading goals and avoid percentage weights. You'll set better goals. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2017

Dick Grote is a management consultant and the author of “How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals”.