Last updated on | Agile

SMART Goals trap!!! Be careful when your boss establish them

by Luís Gonçalves
smart goals


Hi, not long time ago I read a great book – “Drive”. It made me think about what motivates us. Part of the book talks about goal setting, which I think is a perfect topic for this time of the year.

As it is the beginning of the year, I am pretty sure that soon most of us will have this “famous” meeting with the management to define our goals for the next six months. But is this a good thing? Let’s dig a bit more into it…

How many of you heard that targets and objectives must be SMART Goals? Do you think it is a good definition for goals? SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-scaled.

An example of a Specific goal for a company could be increasing the market share, as compared to a rather general goal of becoming more profitable. To see if an objective was achieved, we must make it Measurable by attaching a number to it, for example, to increase the market share by 3%.

Objectives must be Achievable, which means that the company capabilities and the market environment should allow them to come right. Realistic means that objectives must be within the company’s reach, to expect an employee to become next Freddy Mercury might be a bit too ambitious :).

The last one, Time-scaled, means that an objective must be attached to a time-frame, for example, in 12 months you will sit down with your boss again and see if you reached your targets. Are you familiar with this definition? Do you agree with this approach? Let’s see what some studies proved regarding this topic.

Are SMART Goals useful?

According to the studies discussed in the “Drive”, SMART Goals tend to narrow our focus. This does not sound too bad, right? After all, it is good to be focused on staying concentrated on a particular task and not get distracted by secondary aspects.

However, in reality, this is useful only for activities that use the left part of the brain, i.e. for simple tasks that do not require creativity. But, as Daniel warns in his book, for complex and conceptual tasks giving a specific and measurable objective can blinker the wide-ranging thinking that is necessary to come up with an innovative solution.

For example, if someone has a target to increase the revenue by 5%, they will draw a plan to achieve a 5% growth and no more. Consider that if they did not have that particular extension number, most probably they would think of many different ways of achieving growth, and most likely they would increase the revenue by more than 5%.

Another problem with SMART goals, in my opinion, is that reaching them becomes the only thing that matters. Some people would prefer shortcuts to get there, even if it means making ethical compromises.

On a larger scale, this may cause systematic problems for the organisation. Unethical behaviour, increased risk taking, cooperation between the teams may deteriorate because it is not that unusual that the teams get conflicting goals. That might be the source of inter-team tension, and last but not least, general motivation might decline.

Give a manager a target and he will do everything to achieve it. Even if he has to destroy the company in the process by W. Edwards Deming

Be very careful when establishing SMART Goals

Personal goals that people set for achieving mastery are usually healthy. But SMART goals imposed by others, such as sales targets, quarterly returns, standardised test scores, etc. can, at times, have detrimental side effects.

Therefore, you must be careful when you set goals for your organisation. Please, do not take me wrong, I believe we must have a direction, a company goal, to know where we are heading.

But I am skeptical about the SMART Goals model. What do you think about this model? Let me know your opinion 🙂


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Luís Gonçalves

About Luís Gonçalves

Luis Gonçalves is an Entrepreneur, Author & International Keynote Speaker that works exclusively with Senior Executives of 7 to 8 figure businesses on the deployment of his game changing ‘Organisational Mastery’ Methodology.


Share your point of view

  1. “After all, it is good to be focused in order to stay concentrated on a specific task and not get distracted by secondary aspects. However, in reality this is good only for activities that use the left part of the brain, i.e. for simple tasks that do not require creativity.”

    Well, this is interesting. Even its not related at all with this post, it gave me some insight about what is happening to designers making part of scrums managed by developer minds.

    Any comments on that ?

    1. Hi Marco,

      The phrase “…designers making part of scrums managed by developer minds…” sounds already wrong 🙂 In my opinion good teams hear what everyone has to say… It seems that is not the case in your team… But this raises a bigger issue, completely lack of understanding about team dynamics.

      Said something wrong?


    2. In my years of experience yearly employee goals are more of a constraint and a way for management to manage compensation rather then inspire motivate and innovate. How many companies have a build career paths for employees? Are these goals aligned with the objectives to achieve the companies vision and at the same time helps you move up in the company? or are these goals mapped to leadership goals and compensation and you are there to help them achieve these goals with no rewards vision or future plans for the employee. Ask your manager next time you sit down with him to set goals and objectives, does HR have career paths mapped out for employees and if they do ask to look at them and decide the yearly objectives based on those plans. Otherwise I have to agree with Luis they are just a trap.

  2. Think about it. It success would be as simple as doing what others are doing, everybody would succeed. Yet, it takes an incredible amount of courage to think deeper, think different.

    Too many people follow management fads of the day, and limit their potential in the process.

    The part that I hate the most is “best practices”. I think if you take all best practices and apply them out of principle to one organization you will not create a star organization but completely kill it.

    Best practices are taking too often practices out of their own context. It is good for average results, laziness and to limit creativity.

    So think different. And be careful of easy “truth”. This applies to smart goal too.

  3. Interesting point, but I can’t believe you really would advokate not having any goals. I believe clear goals are absolutely critical, in order to achieve success, however I fully agree that you need to be careful when setting them, in order to avoid what you describe. One way to do this is to review goals in different organisations and really make sure they are appropriate AND ALLIGNED with each other./Matt

    1. Hi Matthew, thanks for your reply.

      I am not against Goals, the point that I want to make is that you must be careful when setting goals. Typically industry set SMART stuff which in my opinion suck.

      I like more the word “Directions”, the manager gives directions to the employee and he decides what is the best solution, but nothing imposed. Did I make sense? 🙂


    2. Hi Luis

      As I said, I fully agree with you that you must be careful when setting goals. I also believe that the type and nature of goals depends very much on the people involved; there is no “one size fits all” magic wand 🙂 By the way, my understanding of a goal is a joint agreement between a manager and the employee, not anything that is imposed. If your experience of goals is something imposed by your manager, then I am not surprised you raise the issue.

      Keep smiling 🙂


    3. Thanks Matt 😉 i guess we are aligned 🙂

      About managers I guess all of us had good and bad ones 😀

      Once again thanks for the time that you took to comment.


  4. Sorry for the late reposnse…
    I like SMART and try to use it every time I can. However, discussing it out of context could be difficult and may turn into rather philosophical topic. I learned from my personal experience to be smart about SMART. Using it with sprint goals – positively 100% beneficial; with release goals – definitely; with entire project goals – may become tricky and one needs to be very careful depending on mastery level in agile (is this the area of interest or goals in general?); with organizational goals – perhaps… The concept is simple and straight forward, but dissecting it reveals a lot of complexity and turns it into rather theory if not attached to specific agenda. I have a question, Luis. What’s the goal of this post and purpose of discussing SMART in connection with the future book’s context? The title was about performance goals, but the content referenced many other types of goals and their impact on business and people. It would be easier to brainstorm ideas if we were not working on universal solution… could be just my inability to be abstract enough


  5. Luis, como estás camarada? 🙂

    What you said makes all sense to me. I give you a simple example, if I do something creative and a person says to me to repeat it, I just can´t do it. On other hand, I am good with some technology and I dont have to think much to put it to work, it is mechanical. So Goals should be defined in mechanical and well known situations.

    Just my two cents.


  6. At our company, we differentiate between GOALS and COMMITMENTS . The commitments are the “must haves” that are aligned with bottom line and corporate objectives. Goals are related to personal and professional development aspirations, contributions to communities of interest, etc. This allows for concrete or SMART commitments but more creative stretch goals.

  7. As I read through this thread I think there are really two discussions.
    On the one side, “SMART Goals Tool”, which I think can be a useful tool for managing a team or an organization; and on the other side “Innovation & Creative Thinking”, and how you manage to motivate this within your team/organization, and more importantly not to stifle initiative and innovation.

    I think SMART is a tool that attempts to bring a level playing field across your organization, to measure and rate your performance in delivering to the company commitments and/or strategic objectives. It attempts to reduce conflict due to lack of clarity and personality bias.

    In a well run program, management and the employees are trained and well versed on how the tool works. The development of the SMART goal is a collaboration between a supervisor, and team member. The supervisor provides the larger alignment picture and the employee can relate this to what they think the can achieve, across the spectrum of pessimistic to optimistic, with respect to their their ability.
    Fundamental to this being a success, is that the company leadership team, has identified where they would like to be, what they would like to achieve and commit that they are prepared to resource departments and teams to support this set of objectives.

    So many times this process fails because this top mandate does not exist, or is not well articulated resulting in managers trying to set goals for themselves and for their teams, which can not be clearly aligned with a company objective.

    Many goals, and objectives can be developed to motivate initiative, and innovation. This happens every day in many organizations, and big and small, all around the world. One memorable SMART goal, which was achieved, was originally stated in 1961. I think this helped to motivate a whole nation see Excerpt below.

    So in conclusion, I think that SMART goals work, where
    1) There is a set of articulate strategic objectives to align with (this may include “Innovate”)
    2) Goal development and measurement is collaborative. (I set and agree my goals with my manager, and we both review how they have been achieved.)

    Excerpt from an Address Before a Joint Session of Congress, 25 May 1961, John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

    First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations–explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

  8. SMART is good for micro goals – atomic goals. Like in designing test cases. They are used when you have the most information available to you. A specific test cases should have these goals otherwise you’re spinning your wheels. It’s a gating mechamism prior to beginning the work.

    SMART at the macro level, which seems to be the theme here does what you say it does – breeds dysfunction that can find it’s root cause in these types of goals – e.g. Sales goals leading to quality to being compromised..

    1. Hi Nick,

      Thanks for the time that you spent commenting :). I tend to not agree with you 🙂 Even for micro goals I do not see the utility of them. For test cases there are thing much better than smart goals… Using BDD with acceptance criteria and describing the exact behaviour that is expected from the story/Feature is much better 🙂


  9. Hi Luis,

    Love the title. By the way, Greg McKeown wrote a really good post on LInkedIn that parallels this discussion and probably will add some nuances many will miss when trying to “focus” the organization (focus can be both a noun and a verb). It’s really important for our teams to understand which kind of focus about which we’re talking.

    Personally, I cringe every time “SMART” is trotted out as a tool. Unfortunately, it’s included in the training that every PMP goes through on their way to being certified. As a PMP trainer, I was required to prepare them to pass the certification test, but I always included VSPT, Cascading Vision and the 4D Model as superior ways to “focus” the teams and to achieve a “focus” that could react in a nano-second to changes that always happened both internally and externally along the way.

    SMART isn’t really so “smart” … especially if it’s not linked to the bigger picture. And, as someone mentioned above, used incorrectly it has a high potential to create dysfunction inside an organization.

    Many thanks,

  10. I’ve been a creative department manger in corporations for years, and the whole “smart goals” process for performance reviews is fatally flawed for almost anyone who isn’t a manager or senior player in an organization. I worked at one company where is was so disruptive, they eventually tossed it out for almost everyone, I mean, they were trying to make the loading dock workers write their smart goals…stupid, non-productive, and a monumental time waster for the line employee with set accomplishments. Now I’m working at another place where they’ve brought it in and it’s disrupting my department again and causing a critical mass in wasted time. What company is cashing in on selling this package to clueless organizations? Believe me when I tell you most of the HR employees at my place are at a loss as well. The wrong solution for HR departments that are foundering in the modern era.