Goals & Goats (How do you set strategic SMART goals?)
It has been famously said that, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.“ Let me add that a goal without a strategy is just a bad idea.
It was like magic, but it wasn’t.
A few years ago, we had a goal-setting meeting during which we decided that we really enjoyed working in the nonprofit sector and wanted more of such work. Within a year of that meeting, almost as if by magic, 50% of our clients were nonprofits. It was like magic, but it wasn’t. The act of envisioning something is terribly powerful, but what you do with that vision is the critical part. The process of migrating from envisioning to goal-setting is worth an examination. Effective goal-setting can be of great benefit to nearly any organization or individual.
Last fall I came upon a list of “must read” books by Jeff Bezos. On that list was the 1984 book, The Goal, by Eliyahu Goldratt. This book, with its profoundly ugly cover, is quite an entertaining read. It’s a “business novel,” if that’s even a genre, but it’s also a substantive narrative that outlines what Dr. Goldratt calls the theory of constraints. Along the way the book also illustrates how goal-setting can make the achievement of seemingly incredible things possible.
Deming laments that without understanding of the entire system, objectives can be misapplied.
Goals should not be arbitrary but, instead, set in the context of systemic organizational needs. Properly structured goals place preemptive emphasis on their achievement, and if this is out of sync with strategic organizational objectives such goals can cause problems. This has been pointed out perhaps most notably in Edwards Deming‘s critique of the way some have tried to apply Peter Drucker’s Management by Objectives. Deming laments that without understanding of the entire system, objectives can be misapplied. I heartily agree. Simply creating a laundry list of goals may facilitate the potential of their achievement, but at the expense of what else?
In the spirit of The Goal I will try to make this example interesting. I once had this idea: Wouldn’t it be great to have a pet goat? My kids were all for it. My wife was not.
Let’s run with this for a minute. Had I, in that moment, set for myself the goal of acquiring a pet goat, what would have been the consequence of this? I use a personal example here, but the principles are identical for organizations.
I would first have the formidable challenge of convincing my wife of its value, and then I would have to initiate a clandestine animal husbandry practice.
I live in Brooklyn, so on my way to achieving this goal I found that large farm animals are prohibited here. So to achieve that goal, I would first have the formidable challenge of convincing my wife of its value, and then I would have to either: a) initiate a clandestine animal husbandry practice, b) sell my house and move to the country where no such law applies, or c) mount/join a campaign to repeal or modify the statute prohibiting farm animal husbandry in Brooklyn.
My seemingly simple goal yielded a selection of possible courses of action that were by no means trivial. So it can be with an institution’s goals. This is one reason why they are powerful and necessary, but also fraught with complications. Having the vague idea of achieving a goal is very different from setting in motion your journey towards it, and taking systematic steps toward its achievement.
In pursuing my goal I see three options, all of which will require extraordinary effort to achieve. Any one, if selected and pursued with diligence, would transform my life in some significant ways. Goals should be chosen wisely, and within the context of what is really important.
A great motivator for goal-setting is to envision where you or your organization want to be in ten years. Think big. Now what are you going to do this year to move your organization toward that vision? Okay, now what do you have to do this month to accomplish that? Okay, now what do you need to do today to accomplish that? What I want for myself or my organization in ten years, if it is a true goal, impacts what I will do right now. This is the real power of a goal. This is how goals can catalyze significant positive change.
Goals should be strategic and never arbitrary.
Many of you should be familiar with some variation of “SMART” goals. I’d like to show a variant that helps solve the goat problem I started with, and, in so doing, also avoids Deming’s critique. A goal, like my example of getting a goat, may lead me astray. This is because it is not aligned with the bigger picture of my life plan. The goat and moving to the country would sabotage my other arguably much more important goals (like getting all my kids through college). Goals should be strategic and never arbitrary. A goal’s relationship to your organizational or life strategy is of critical importance.
How to set strategic SMART goals
Strategy is born from deep inspection of the question Why? Why is this goal important? If I cannot get to a good answer to why this goal makes sense in the context of my strategic vision, then the goal is suspect (or the strategy is suspect).
Why? can be asked over and over again to good effect. “Why do you want a goat?” Because I like goats.”Why do you like goats?” because they are easy to feed and they produce milk. “Why are these things important to you?” Because I was imagining the benefits of a more rural lifestyle, and this seemed an easy first step in that direction. “Why do you think a rural lifestyle would suit you?” I don’t know. I guess I was daydreaming, and I had not really thought it through…
Now by pushing through to the real why, we can make sure that a goal is truly a strategic goal, and not just a whim. If the whys can unearth a solid strategic reason for the goal, I can check it against the rest of my strategy and then, I can proceed to pursue that goal with gusto.
How do you set SMART goals for yourself or your organization?
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