September 03, 2019

Are Your SMART Goals the Right Goals?

It is human nature to short-cut our thinking by simplifying complicated or multi-dimensional ideas into bite-sized, digestible bits. Such is the case with SMART goals, an acronym for…well, that’s part of the problem: no one seems to know exactly what it stands for.

A cursory search of the term “SMART goals” revealed some disorder in the house. Consider the number of possible combinations based on the different variations on the SMART goals theme:

S = Specific, Small, or Simple

M = Meaningful, Measurable, or Motivational

A = Achievable, Assignable, or Accountable

R = Realistic, Rewarding, or Relevant

T = Time-Bound, Timely, or Touchable

For us mental mathematicians, that comes out to 243 possible combinations of SMART characteristics. To be fair, all of the terms distill nicely down to a small, manageable number of principles of effective goals. What the mix of descriptors points to, it seems, is the importance of clarity and specificity in describing what we are trying to accomplish, which provide the means by which we can hold ourselves accountable for getting things done. This is both necessary and sufficient when we develop our personal goals, whether we are trying to lose weight or spend more time reading.

But all 243 possible combinations of SMART goals fall short in the realm of organizational strategy. For sure, clarity, specificity, and accountability are necessary elements of any goal, including strategic ones. But these characteristics are insufficient in that they miss the one consideration that hits at the very heart of organizational strategy: are they the right goals?

From a strategic perspective, the right goals are those that roll up into some larger vision or objective. Accomplishing a goal means that we did something that we said was important to do. What we do not know is if the accomplishment of that goal produced any strategic movement in the organization.

To put this in context, let’s consider a common goal from a nonprofit strategic plan: “to raise awareness of our organization”. To make this a SMART goal, we would need to be clear and specific about what awareness looks like, what we plan to do about it, and how we will know when it has been raised.

But of greater concern to me is how raising awareness moves the organization forward. To test this, we need to work in reverse by following the strategic bread crumbs back to its source by answering these questions:

1. Who, specifically, do we believe needs to know about us.

2. What do we think they need to know about us?

3. What do we want them to do once they know about us?

4. When they do what we want them to do, how will our organization be better off?

By all means, continue to be smart. Just make sure that you are also being strategic.

Need Additional Assistance?

If you are interested in going deeper into your nonprofit strategy or if you wish to review your organizational strategy more broadly, click the link below to schedule a 30-minute phone or zoom consultation with Mike Stone.

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