Why S.M.A.R.T. goals may not be that smart

S.M.A.R.T goals are all the rage.  They appear everywhere, and are particularly loved in funding application forms and by strategic planning facilitators.   According to S.M.A.R.T, goals should be: S – specific ;  M – measurable; A - achievable; R – relevant and T - timely. (There is some variations as to the words that make up the acronym.) 


Goal setting is useful.  I am all for not having goals that are fluffy and too high level to be meaningful.  S.M.A.R.T is a useful (and catchy!) guideline for grounding goals in reality.   Sometimes though I think we go too far in setting out goals as a performance measures, rather than separating out the two, particularly when S.M.A.R.T is applied to community impact goals. 


Should we go for S.A.R.T. goals instead of S.M.A.R.T?    This is definitely not as great an acronym!


Something I read recently in Michael Quinn Patton’s book ‘Practical Evaluation’ struck a chord to this effect:


He uses the example of this goal:


“Student achievement test scores will increase one grade level from the beginning of first grade to the beginning of grade two.” (p. 103)


He points out that this statement is not a goal statement and that the goal is that children improve their reading.    He argues that it is important to separate the two because a goal and its measurement are two different things:


1.      Goals make explicit values and purpose.


2.      Measurement provides data indicating the state of relative goal attainment.


Because some things lend themselves well to measurement and some don’t, Patton argues that programs often limit goals to what is easily measured, rather than what is an inspiring and useful direction for the program.


I am inclined to agree, and have witnessed the wings of exciting strategic conversations get clipped with the needs to bring in measurement too quickly and too specifically.    When faced with the demand for measurable goals in funding application forms, measures can be invented quite hastily and attached to targets that aren’t well thought out or discussed.


What we measure most easily are things like outputs (# people employed, # workshops, …etc.) and not outcomes (quality of life, economic development, environmental improvements…etc.). By focusing on SMART goals, we often focus on outputs, and activities that bring them about.     Bringing in a measurement of an outcome into a goal may seem like the way to go,  but I think outcome measurement is important and complex enough that we should talk about it, and plan for it on its own, rather than being integrated hastily into the wording of a goal.  


Measurement is quite critical to learning, scaling and replicating social innovation.   As a community of ‘change-makers’, let’s support good practices and capacity in measurement, sharing and learning. For funders and investors, this means moving beyond focusing on S.M.A.R.T. goals in applications and reporting, to making the space for conversations, support and resources to measure what is important.  For community-based organizations, this means defining clear goals that are inspiring but grounded in reality, and then taking the time to work through how and what to measure according to your organizational needs.


Let’s bring on the A.R.T.S., S.A.R.T., R.A.T.S. goals!!!

blog type: 
Issues & Ideas