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Frans Riemersma, 17 Aug '16

'Creating SMART goals' made easy

Trying to formulate just one SMART goal in isolation is nonsense. Goals interact. Context is king. Ask "Why? So I can..." to make SMART goal setting effortless. 

Formulating SMART goal looks deceivingly simple, until you try to actually write one. The reason is surprisingly simple: trying to formulate just one SMART goal in isolation is futile. Goals interact with one another to become a strategy. Starting asking: “Why? So I can…” to make working with SMART goals a joy.

Many of our clients who decide to start working with SMART goals quickly end up in an identity crisis. Making smart goals looks simple, but it is far from self-explanatory when you actually try it.

The problem is that you never quite know for sure whether you’ve done it correctly. The acronym is supposed to give you some security, but in practice all it does is make you more insecure.

So you end up falling back into your old routine. Which, mind you, is an equally dubious practice where you don’t really know whether you’ve got your goals right either.

Demand for an “easy to define goal formula” is huge, and so is supply. SMART goals have been proven to work but they don’t seem to work out in practice. What’s going wrong?

Exploring the problem and writing strategic goals with clients for years, we learned how to make writing SMART goals really easy.

Context is king

The truth is that having to write SMART goals in isolation is really hard. If you don’t know about context, making SMART goals is a pain.

So, where do you start? So, start by creating context. Goals shouldn’t live in exile. A goal written in isolation is no goal.

Write down, say, half a dozen short goals. Don’t try to be SMART yet, that’s exactly what makes formulating SMART goals such a drag.

Use these short goals to create a network of goals. If you do it right, this can actually grow to become your new agile strategy.

Create context by asking “Why, So I can?”

Creating a network of goals starts by asking “Why, So I can?” for every individual goal. As you create your tree structure, put individual goals under the parent goal that best answers the question “So I can”.

Boardview_io_The_Growth_MapRepeat this exercise with all individual goals. If you can’t seem to place a goal card under any parent goal asking “Why? So I can”, that individual goal does not add value and can get rid of it.

Many supposedly completely filled out SMART goals don’t list the “why”. If you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, it is incredibly hard to formulate a SMART goal. And this is exactly what one of our clients experienced. Here’s what we did to help.

Case study: Individual Goals + Context = Strategy

As with any of our workshops, we asked our client to bring their documented strategy to the meeting. One of our client’s strategy documentation showed 4 major goals.

  • JIT (Just in Time),
  • NPS (Net Promoter Score)
  • ISA (In store availability)
  • Grow people.

Although achieving all four goals was of utmost importance, the company couldn’t manage to make either of these goals SMART.

It was obvious they’d been trying though. You could just smell the old familiar nagging feeling you get when having to write SMART goals but somehow not being able to pull it off completely. We’ve all been there. What’s more, the managers were convinced that each goal was equally important.

This is how our exercise turned things around completely.

Having our client ask “Why, So I can” for every goal quickly led to the wow-moment. It turned out that every goal pointed towards NPS, simply because the NPS was the best predictor for growth and profitability.

JIT and ISA were 2nd level goals as they were only a useful means to realising a good NPS. Growing people turned out to be a 3rd level goal designed to equip the staff with lean and agile skills. Growing had no other purpose than to improve JIT and ISA.

In identifying priorities this way, there were able to reach their final goal of improving NPS. When you’ve got your strategic priorities straight, getting SMART just becomes a simple exercise of filling in the blanks.

The client later confessed that getting goal priorities straight can make you breeze through and dominate meetings. You’ll be able to prove why any specific thing you do adds value.

Create context to get SMART yourself

Remember, getting SMART is about taking a step back and creating context before you do anything else.

Here’s a quick offline exercise for you to get started now:

  • Write down simple goal titles on post it notes
  • Put the notes right place in your tree asking “Why? So I can” for every individual goal to get your priorities clear.
  • Now fill out all the attributes in the SMART acronym in one single swoop and you’ve got your agile strategy ready to go.

Turns out getting SMART is not so hard after all.