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Is the SMART formula too rigid?

Carol Robertson

When determining new goals it’s not enough to doggedly follow long-established criteria, write Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller for MIT Sloan Management Review. In an increasingly competitive landscape, it’s essential to look at your aims in relation to the climate your organisation inhabits.

You’re probably familiar with the acronym SMART; it directs that goals should always be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based. This well-respected formula makes excellent sense for solid companies in a steady market with easily foreseeable outcomes. However, it’s not so useful for businesses in less assured environments where other competitive considerations come into play.

“It’s hard to manage to specific, time-based targets when demand, technology, business models and competitor sets are incessantly shifting, as is common in emerging or recently disrupted industries, like genetic testing services or augmented reality technology,” say Reeves and Fuller.


When our brains are on familiar territory they can process SMART goals into recognisable steps moving towards a desired result. When an unknown factor enters the mix, fulfilling every stage can become impossible. What’s needed is some imaginative thinking.

Reeves and Fuller cite Google’s aim “to organise the world’s information” as an excellent example of a goal that’s impossible to measure. But the vagueness of its wording opens the door to fresher, more exploratory aims that can boost your business.


It’s common to be over-ambitious about our ability to transform and to adopt big, brave, dramatic goals that just don’t match the environment we are in.

That approach can work in the right place at the right time. “The more a company has the power to shape its environment, the more its goals should be ambitious, broadly scoped, and externally oriented.”

On the other hand, in a known environment, keeping a tight rein on your goals using the SMART guidelines and sticking to what is achievable can be exactly what is needed.


As your company’s circumstances, experiences and environments develop, keep a close watch on your aims to make sure they are in alignment.

Chinese multinational Alibaba had as its aim in the 1990s to be “an e-commerce company serving China’s small exporting companies.” Then its goal was “the development of an e-commerce ecosystem in China.” It now has the audacious and suitably “fuzzy” goal “to build the future infrastructure of commerce”.


Sometimes having no goals at all, at least temporarily, is the best way to progress experimentally. This particularly applies to new businesses in young industries where success can depend on imaginative thinking in a competitive marketplace.

“This is the case when we want to play, explore, and innovate – bypassing constraints rather than being guided by them.”


Start by pinpointing your company’s current environment. Then review the extent and nature of your present goals and consider what changes could be made.

For example: “If a usefully fuzzy goal is required, use terms that are rich in possible analogies to drive exploration.”

Determining goals within developing environments is a challenge. But being open to ideas beyond established SMART norms can open up exciting new possibilities.

Source Article: When SMART Goals Are Not So Smart
Author(s): Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller