An Alternative to SMART Goals
Specific, measurable, achievable, time-bound goals (SMART goals) are an effective way to align and improve performance. However, we have probably all noticed situations where SMART goals didn’t seem to fit the reality. When the reality is ambiguous, uncertain, or rapidly changing then something as well-defined as a SMART goal can be out of place. More broadly, when we only have vague or extremely general ideas about what to achieve, then it’s hard (or even harmful) to be overly specific. Perhaps in those cases we need WISE goals: Wide-spanning, Insightful goals that are Sensitive to the ever changing Environment
We can frame this as a left brain view versus a right brain one. The left brain has an engineering mindset that wants to carefully put everything into well-defined boxes. The right brain likes to sit back and observe the world in a holistic way, ever alert for interesting events or patterns. SMART goals are left-brain, WISE goals are right brain. It’s important to know that while the right-brain values the capabilities of the left, the reverse is not true. When we are in left-brain mode, or work with someone who is, the vagueness of WISE goals will be infuriating. If our left-brain co-worker is in a good mood they will eagerly try to show you how you can turn your vague WISE goals into a specific SMART goals; which, if you fall for it, will destroy their special power.
One WISE goal you might set for employees, in addition to their core set of SMART goals, is “Do something that will enhance the effectiveness of this department.” The SMART goals deal with the known, the WISE goal opens up the door to the unknown. It should be said right away that some individuals won’t be comfortable with WISE goals, that’s fine, they’re not for everyone.
How do you assess the outcome of a WISE goal? In some cases it will be apparent in measurable terms, someone may come up with an “out-of-the-blue” idea that saves time or increases revenue. Other times it may not be measurable, such as increasing the capability to innovate or noticing an opportunity that has yet to be pursued. As we tackle this question we need to ask ourselves why we need a formal assessment of the outcome at all. More often than not coming up with something new is reward in itself, so if you are worried without assessing its value and assigning a bonus; well you don’t need to go there. I think the starting point for rewarding the achievement of WISE goals should be showing appreciation.
One could potentially build WISE goals into the formal goal setting process. Personally, I’m more inclined simply to let managers know that this is an option. We don’t have to be specific, measurable or time-bound in how we use WISE goals; let’s simply encourage managers to have the wisdom to use them when they are needed.
David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research. He is best known for his workshops on Agile Analytics, Evidence-based Management and the Future of Work. You can connect to him on LinkedIn or at firstname.lastname@example.org.