Why People Fail at Setting SMART Goals

Unless you have been living under a rock, you probably have heard of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timing). Though, how many times have you sat down with a team, set a goal to finish a project or feature by a certain time, but failed to hit the mark? Probably all of us. Missing a deadline on a small project can lead to immense organization negative impact as Liz Pearce pointed out in this interesting infographic blog. By learning the art of setting more accurate on goals and deadlines, you will be able to avoid the negative company impact.


As a more goal-oriented type person, I pride myself on figuring out how to achieve results in selective time frame periods. It started young when I would try to figure out how to ride my bike for an extra hour, to as an adult mapping out a new book launch by a certain date. Hence, when I entered corporate, current goal setting techniques confused me because often they didn’t work very well. In addition, these errors were consistent among different teams and industries.


In this short post, I will walk you through each part of the SMART setting goal process and unpack perspectives and reasons why different areas fail. If you find yourself stating any of the sentences below, you could be in trouble.


Specific – “I already know what to do.”

You sit down and start scoping out the project and the most senior person on the team says:


“I already know what to do. I will take it from here.”


In my experience, if the senior person says this, no one else questions further. Leading to the sub-project not scoped out and not translated out of the more senior person’s mind. Leaving a ticket with a fairly nondescript explanation of the what to do. Here is the problem with that approach:


  • Unscoped work – if one person knows, work can easily be missed scoped during the process.
  • Can’t transfer workload – if one person knows how to do it, there is no way that ticket can be passed to someone else.


My perspective on this step comes down to an ego problem ‘I already know what to do’ and a system problem where project managers avoid having people walk through each stepsin order to ensure full execution. Everyone makes mistakes, its best to catch them earlier rather than later.


Measurable – “This ticket should take _ days ”

But how do you know that? Usually estimations are done in group efforts where everyone, or maybe just the technical people in the meeting give a time estimation. Here again, specificity is key. What parts of the ticket tend to take the longest and shortest? Break those down and evaluate the moving pieces explicitly. Often when we go through this step quickly, we are not specific with making estimations from start to end. Consequently, the project becomes enormously difficult to measure because very little of it is mapped out.


Achievable – “Let’s just add a few days because things tend to take longer”

But why do they take longer? There are many management theories on this. However, in my experience, it is mostly due to the first step where people simply do not get specific enough when mapping the initial project size. The solution is not padding days. Doing retrospectives and finding where the team usually fails in estimations is probably a better approach. If the technical part of the team fails to make estimates accurate, then you will need to hold their feet to the fire better. Cross analyze their initial estimations to their final estimations looking for error.


However, this falls mostly on a manager’s shoulders and usually it require fairly fastidious note taking. You will never be perfect in setting estimations, but improving initial estimations does not take an enormous effort.



Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? A great approach in business is the 5 Ways Approach. Find the bottom reason why you should do one thing versus something else. I cannot tell you how many projects I have been on in corporate where we were building someone because it was in the backlog but it didn’t have an importance to the quarterly goals. Always ask why!


Timely – “Let’s just say roughly should be done by this time”

For some weird reason, a movement is circulating around companies where deadlines are not important. I find this particularly concerning given that a business can not operate if projects do not have deadlines. The problem isn’t if you miss the deadline, the problem involves not learning from the missed deadline so you don’t make the same mistake again. Teams often get so concerned about deadlines that they keep them vague defeating the purpose of having a goal. Please make sure to have goals time boxed with the added note to compare pre and post project estimations to learn from your mistakes.


I hope this was helpful to you on understanding SMART goals a bit more succinctly. It’s an art to set goals effectively. If you are able to improve 10%, that will carry you farther than you can imagine.

Jeff Butler

Jeff Butler Internationally respected speaker and consultant, Jeff Butler helps bridge generational gaps between Millennials and companies looking for their talent and patronage. Butler has quickly built his reputation as a memorable presenter with tangible solutions for attracting, retaining, and engaging Millennials as employees and customers. Within just the past three years, he has spoken at two TEDx events and multiple Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Amazon, and LinkedIn.


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