SMART Goals Work, You’re Just Doing Them Wrong

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The term “Two-Faced” is used to describe someone with two contrasting aspects. If you behave differently around one group of friends than you would another, you might be labeled as two-faced.

These days that term is viewed as an insult, but did you know that that wasn’t always the case? There was a time when two-faced was actually “Janus-Faced.” Janus, the god of doorways and gateways from ancient Roman times, can be seen as a man with one face looking forward, and one face looking backward. A symbol of looking to the future, and into the past.

Early Romans revered Janus so much that once per year, they would use sacrifices to thank the God for the year they had and made promises for the year the plan to have. This time of the year will later be named after the god. We now call it “January” and their promises are now called “resolutions,” a tradition that continues on today.

Similar to the Romans, people use January for setting both personal and professional goals. Since January is here, it’s time to start thinking of your goals, as well as the goals of your team.

But here’s something to think about, only 8% of goals make it past the first month. Most of the time personal goals are dropped due to a simple lack of conviction, but in the business world, it usually chalks up to volatility. Work happens, and by the time you formally write up your work plan, it is already off schedule. But we keep trying to tell the future hoping for success.

Last year, I facilitated a team exercise designed to answer one question: Where would we, as a team, like to be in one year? I reserved a couple of hours, bought my team lunch, and parked myself at the white board as I wanted this to be their exercise, not mine. The desired deliverable was to create meaningful progress in priority areas by empowering the front line team members to provide insight on the priority areas. Together we came up with 3 priorities that the team wanted to focus on for 2016.

After the exercise, I broke each priority into goals for the individual team member. The way I went about this was to think of the 3 priorities as Thematic Team Goals. The individual goals were designed to answer the question “what’s my part to play in this goal?”

Each individual goal clearly defined my expectation out of each member. As a team member, they each had a responsibility in every Thematic Goal. So I wanted to challenge them to do their part to make the team successful. A full example of an individual goal that’s tied to a themed goal can be found at the bottom of the article.

Walking into this exercise, I kept in mind several values:


  1. Make the goals memorable – Most years, my team would only look at goals during midyear and end year review time. I always found this to be a pitfall for traditional goal setting processes, so I wanted to change things. I envisioned a world where team members had the goal in mind every day. Something that was commonly talked about on the floor without my interjection. This is why I wanted to go with the team creation exercise. They now feel more invested in the outcome because they created it.
  2. Make the goals Universal – For the same reason as above, I wanted to create goals that unified the team. Everyone had their individual goals, but since they were tied back to team goals, it changed the perspective from inward to outward. Everyone was working toward team success.
  3. No projects – When I first took Lead of the team, I found myself giving projects to individuals that I thought would be the perfect fit. The problem was priorities shift through the year, and I kept finding myself canceling goals or creating new ones based on the new information. I wanted to create goals that better-handled volatility, which wasn’t easy.
  4. Make the goals a priority – through this exercise, my team was able to tell me what they deemed as really important. So if it was important to them, I was going to make sure it stays front and center for the entire year. I added the three Thematic Goals to our weekly meeting to discuss first thing once per week. Usually only took about 5 mins but it reinforced the team’s values. This was the most powerful decision I made in the process and key for its success.

Wrap up

I think that people sometimes view SMART or CLEAR goals as busy work. Something that’s used for management and can be thrown away after the document is written up. This thought always bothered me. Goal setting is a tool in the leader’s toolbox.

I too fell into this school of thought, questioning the validity of this process. But after careful thought, I was able to try it from a different direction. It was like I was holding a hammer from the wrong end, and wondering why it won’t drive the nail as intended. Instead of blaming the hammer, I chose to hold it differently and try again.

So if you or your team looks down on your current goal setting process, I recommend you give this exercise a try. My team can now state all their goals on the fly, and they achieved every goal for the year with minimal push from their leader. The feedback was so positive; I am thinking of ways to build upon it for 2017. This exercise renewed my faith in goal setting and has been an extremely valuable tool as a young leader.

I hope everyone enjoyed the read. As always, please share your thoughts/comments/experiences about goal setting in the comments below. Let’s start 2017 off on a strong note!


Bonus Example of One of My Teams Smart Goals

Project Management Focus – Be remarkable project managers

SMART Goal: Projects are what we consider to be the method of bringing the state of the art forward. As a true project manager, I will need to balance and prioritize project work with support and meta to ensure that the EODT is pushing forward. As part of my focus on developing project management skills, I will

  • Recognize affected teams and involve them early
  • Schedule a project kickoff
  • Acquire requirements
  • Determine and document scope
  • Create a detailed project plan with accurate milestones and target dates
  • Perform thorough QA
  • Document project progression using OneNote and TFS
  • Communicate effectively to business partners and interested parties
  • Complete the project

As this is a team strategy, I will do this for every project I am assigned.

                Meets Expectations

At the start of a project, I will hold a “kick-off” meeting to signify the beginning stages of the project. This meeting should involve a representative from each team that has involvement in the project. A defined project scope will be created and from it, a project plan with time line will be determined. The project plan will be split into accurate milestones. All large to small projects will be completed within 80% of the estimated time. During implementation, an open line of communication will be facilitated and maintained via progress reports and updates to business partners and other interested parties. I will work with the end user to come up with a detailed testing criteria in which I can perform QA testing. The goal is to minimize the bugginess of software when we release it to production. Feedback loops should be a part of the project plan and will need target dates for the end.


I am able to coordinate several teams simultaneously to hit all project plan estimates. When I do, I am viewed as the authority and ring leader of the project effort by all effected parties. Unit testing will be worked into the project plan with a stated realistic goal for code coverage. Code reviews will be coordinated and thorough documentation of all decisions made during the project will be kept. All agreed upon deliverables will be delivered by project end unless previously negotiated otherwise. I am able to cast and sell a 3 year vision of the project effort that is in alignment with IS goals.


                Exceeds Expectations (may include but not limited to)

I will become an Expert at project management. I am able to coach all team members in proper project management and estimation practices and evangelize throughout AECI.

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