Knowing Where You Are Going
I have been an avid goal setter for more than two decades. Over the years, I hit many of my targets, but became frustrated whenever I missed the mark. I blamed myself, and sometimes others, when I fell short. I thought missing personal or business goals meant I was doing something wrong in the goal-setting process. It took me years to uncover that goal setting was only the first step of goal achieving.
In the extraordinary book Goal Setting and Task Performance, Professors Locke and Latham summarize 393 separate research studies on goal setting, involving 40,000 subjects performing 88 different tasks, in eight different countries, over time spans ranging from minutes to years. (1) Leaders must set and communicate a compelling vision that includes long-term goals. Goal achieving does indeed begin with smart goal setting.
How to Set S.M.A.R.T. Goals
The science setting a goal requires that you get S.M.A.R.T., an acronym for:
Specific –where are you going?
Measurable – how will you keep track of your progress?
Attainable – does the goal inspire you to stretch?
Responsible – who are your stakeholders?
Timed – when will you reach your destination?
S – Specific. Do you know where you are going? It's a simple question and yet leaders often confuse their followers with lack of clarity when setting a long-term goal. Confidence fades when the horizon is foggy. I was recently working with a financial institution and asked a human resource executive what their long-term goal was. She pointed to a poster in the training room that described the vision of being the world leader. I pointed to their annual report that described their long-term goal of being a leader in a specific segment of banking in a specific region of the United States. This HR executive didn’t understand that inspiring a team to achieve difficult goals begins by painting a clear picture of the destination.
M – Measurable. How will you keep track your progress? If you can't measure it, how can you manage it? When you set a long-term goal, you must have metrics in place to make sure everyone knows that progress is being made. One organization I work with publishes industry benchmarks every quarter so that their leaders have a valid and useful yardstick to track progress. Jeff Immelt, the CEO of GE, says “Every needs a metric.” (2)
A – Attainable. I received a greeting card that read, “Shoot for the moon -- if you miss you’ll be among the stars!” Sounds nice. But then I thought, shooting for the moon could also get you lost in space! In his best-selling book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge at MIT compares the stretch between where you are and where you want to go to a rubber band. (3) He points out that there is a recurring tension between vision thinking (where you want to go) and rational thinking (the demands of your everyday surroundings). You might want to consider how you will manage this “creative tension” as you set your attainable goal. Goals should stretch your team, but not so far that they roll their eyes in disbelief or feel like they are going to snap.
R – Responsible. The sun is setting on the lone-star leader. Leaders may be responsible for achieving their goals, but these days they need help from others inside and outside their organization to reach their destination. Today’s complex market and demanding customers often require leaders who are independent and interdependent. Expansive leaders know how to work on their own and with others to meet their goals. Thus, the R in S.M.A.R.T. refers to stakeholders, who are also “responsible” for your success. A stakeholder is someone who has a vested interest in, or is affected by, your goal.
Stakeholders may include those in other divisions or departments, vendors, industry experts, association executives, outside consultants and so forth. I recommend that you create a top 10-stakeholder list. These are individuals to stay in touch with as you pursue your challenging goal.
T - Time. When will you reach your destination? Write the date you will reach your goal. It is not good enough to write that you will accomplish your goal in six months. You must put a specific date.
Knowing Where You Are Going… Doesn't Get You There
With all the research on goal setting, you might think writing an excellent long-term goal would guarantee success. But it doesn’t, of course. As you strive to execute a long-term goal, the predictive power of just knowing where you’re going diminishes. That’s because the science of goal achieving teaches that as goals become increasingly difficult, the impact of having written goals on achievement decreases. In other words, as goals get harder, just because you wrote them down doesn’t mean you’ll reach them. The science of goal achieving tells us that when goals become more difficult you need a plan. Setting long-term goals without a plan is like setting sail for a treasure without a map. To execute, you need both a well-defined destination and a plan to reach it.
The need for a S.M.A.R.T. goal and plan is also supported by research Zig Ziglar and I conducted on 104 people attending one of Zig’s seminars. Individuals that had written goals and written plans to achieve their goals far outperformed those who “only” had goals. (4) So, make sure you have a goal and a plan when you embark on your next journey... and you'll graduate from being a a goal setter to a goal GETTER!
1. Locke E and Latham G: A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance. Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, 1990.
2. Thomas A. Stewart; Growth as a Process: The HBR Interview with Jeffrey R. Immelt, Harvard Business Review, June 2006.
3. Senge P: The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Doubleday: New York, 1990.
4. Goldman BM, Masterson SS, Locke EA, Groth, M, Jensen DG: Goal-directedness and Personal Identity as Correlates of Life Outcomes. Psychological Reports, 91:153-166, 2002.