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Beyond SMART Goals

Posted by MaryAnn McKibben Dana, ACC | August 22, 2019 | Comments (2)

When are SMART goals not so SMART?

Even asking the question feels borderline heretical. My coach training extolled the virtues of goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable (or sometimes Audacious), Relevant and Time-limited. As a coach, I love helping clients take their grand hopes and intentions and whittle them down into purposeful action. It never feels like playing small; it feels right sized, the push that gets them moving in the right direction.

Still, a number of my clients have bristled at the structure of SMART goals. Many of them work in such collaborative environments that it’s hard to find SMART goals that are both within their purview, yet impactful enough to be worth pursuing. Too often their goals bump up against circumstances outside of their control.

Or, consider the client operating in a fast-paced work environment, punctuated with constant change. The most diligently constructed SMART goal could be rendered obsolete as team objectives need to shift.

Still another client didn’t resonate with SMART goals personally, but her HR team insisted on them, with compensation tied to the SMART goals. In such cases, it’s pretty tempting to set goals that are modest and achievable enough to guarantee a raise. What to do?

As a running coach as well as a leadership coach, I often find myself drawing on athletic metaphors in my work with leaders and executives. One day I was wrapping up with a client who was committing to make a certain number of phone calls each week. I asked him how many he was aiming for. Then on the spur of the moment, I asked for the minimum he’d be happy with (because life happens), as well as his best-case scenario.

In running, we call these A, B and C goals. B goals reflect the performance you’re training for in a race—they’re a push but achievable. A goals are those once-in a-lifetime moments—the weather is perfect, you wake up that morning and your body feels “on,” and you end up surpassing what you’d even trained for. And C goals are the baseline, when circumstances don’t go your way, when weather or your body conspire against you. C goals allow you to push through and finish with your head held high, even if you fall short of your B goal.

Tiered goals provide a helpful shift in perspective, but can we also borrow from sports in how we design the goals themselves? Recently I’ve been playing with outcome, performance and process goals with clients.

Outcome Goals

The outcome goal is the North Star, the thing athletes aspire to, such as winning a race or qualifying for the Olympics. It’s audacious and inspiring—a long-term vision for where one wants to be. Outcome goals get us out of bed in the morning. But outcome goals are also largely out of our control. I can train perfectly and run fast in my hometown 10K, but if Shalane Flanagan happens to show up at the start line, I’m not going to win.

Similarly, a client may have a goal to grow their small business enough to be able to quit their day job within a year, but if there’s an economic downturn, or problems with a supplier, it may not happen. That reality doesn’t make the outcome goal bad, just insufficient.

Performance Goals

That’s where performance goals come in. These goals are intermediate standards that must be achieved in order to strive for the outcome goal, such as completing training runs at a specific pace, or building up to a certain number of miles per week.A nonprofit volunteer coordinator might set a performance goal to recruit 50 new volunteers over a three-month period, or an author might commit to increasing their social media audience by 10%. Often, we’ll have several performance goals working together to help achieve an outcome goal, and when one benchmark is achieved, a new one is set.

Process Goals

Process goals are the most granular. They are the daily and weekly activities that form the building blocks for the performance goals: completing five training sessions per week, committing to stretching after a hard workout, etc. The volunteer coordinator may strive to make 15 phone calls a week in order to recruit, and our author may pitch three articles to media outlets every Monday.

As coaches, we help clients turn intention into reality. Sometimes, SMART goals get the job done. Other times, we need to be smart…in a different way.

maryann mckibben dana headshot

MaryAnn McKibben Dana, ACC

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, pastor, speaker and Associate Certified Coach (ACC) who lives in Reston, Virginia. She is author of God, Improv, and the Art of Living and Sabbath in the Suburbs. She speaks, writes and coaches around issues of leadership, spirituality, adaptive change, team building and more. She is a mother of three, an inveterate muffin-maker, and a newly minted ultramarathoner.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (2)

  1. Chris Holmes says:

    MaryAnn, this is well written and a very helpful way to think about setting achievement markers as alternative to SMART goals. I love it. Thanks for sharing this idea from your experience as a runner and a coach. Chris Holmes

  2. Min Hwangbo says:

    Great article! I think it definitely is a challenge to differentiate especially the distinction between “outcome” goal and “performance” goal. Well done!

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