When Goal Setting isn't SMART enough

I am a human being, so I LOVE goals and goal setting. Don’t we all?

As we move farther away from the malaise of Christmas and New Year, I am reminded about the futility of choosing a date that marks the end of one year and the beginning of the next, as a time to create important and often fundamental goals.

Following the excited creation of these incredible new goals, usually formed over the half hour period between 23:30 and 23:59 on 31 December, we pat ourselves on the back and proudly tell everyone about our new life.

It is THE time to change our behaviours, to correct the wrongs we lived in our ‘previous’ lives! Lose weight, eat healthier, get fitter, earn more, get that car…and so the list goes on.

Unfortunately, these ‘News Years Resolutions’ form a very clear reminder of how we previously failed. They are set against a backdrop of a significant negative pattern and usually do not actually address the reason for the pattern, nor what sits behind the purpose for the change.

Instead, they become effective reminders of our excesses through the festive period. We also hold a belief, through repeated behaviour, that the New Year’s Resolution is a flawed mechanism. Not believing, at a deep level, that they will actually last beyond the end of January.

…and for those who have regard for third party language patterns, this does indeed happen for me every year!


This is, by the way, not a sustainable process to undertake Goal creation and setting! Most of us know this, most of us still do this, but why? Because it makes us feel good. It’s a sugar rush of good intentions, generally without the backdrop of true purpose. Of course it’s not sustainable!

Business goal setting

I work with business owners, entrepreneurs, directors and teams; inside businesses large and small. In my daily work, I support people to create sustainable and deeply connected goals.

My preference is to help them reframe and sort these goals into their different contextual levels, of priority and scope.

Businesses are complex ecosystems of intertwined goals and targets, all of which must align with the overall vision of the business in order to create success. The layering of goals contextually supports the overall operational function of the business.

As a business, they need to ensure that ALL of the goals are consistent and support the overall focus of the business strategy and vision. Too many times I observe interdepartmental clashes of contextual goals, causing incredible stress on the system and, as a result, lower efficiencies, reduced revenue and increased team morale issues.

Why contextual goals?

I take my clients through multiple layers of context, rising until they are pulled out of the day to day operations of their business. This is the only way to ensure that they connect to the true purpose of decision making within the ecosystem.

A true contextual position is one which sits in a Why space and allows complete clarity over the situation. A complete understanding of the totality of the elements which build up that position. Only once this is sought can we move back into a What space, one of ACTION steps to achieve the Why, the contextual goal.

Multi-layered contextual goals

As already mentioned, businesses form a complex ecosystem. The same can be true for sporting teams and other non-business organisations. One goal will undoubtedly affect other goals in the system, on a variety of levels and in a variety of ways.

A business example:

Sales department, whose goal is to hit a sales target of $5M in the next 3 months. Contextually this is very clear for the sales team.

Board of directors, whose goal is to increase profitability for investors by 5 percentage points in the next 6 months. Once again clear.

On the face of it, there is a consistency and efficacy in these goals.

In reality, the sales team could achieve their sales target by reducing margin to induce sales growth, at the cost of overall profitability. Also, the Board could make decisions to remove revenue lines which reduce profitability percentage, thus increasing average profitability (their target) despite lower revenue.

This disparity cause stresses in the system and creates conflict.

So how do we ensure compliance of goals? By going to a high enough layer of context, setting an overall goal, then dropping down into the individual business units and setting goals which are aligned with the overall context or goal.

In the example the business units may come together and create one single goal, to grow asset value by 3% in the next year. Each unit will then aim to achieve its own goal, with recourse to the overall goal for the business and the goal of the other.

I call this structure of interwoven goals ’Nesting’.


No dialogue about goals is complete without the standard statement that goals must be SMART. We all know what that means and I do not propose to disagree. However, I don’t believe this gives a complete picture of how authentic goals are set and achieved.

It appears to me to be only part of the picture.

Let’s assume that I have set a goal to increase my business turnover by $100,000 in the next 6 months, starting from a revenue of $900,000. This is incredibly achievable based upon previous results and team sizing.

This goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and is Time bound. It's SMART.

So why the problem?

Let’s make a list:

1) Will achieving the goal go against any of my business or personal value systems?
2) Are all of the elements in the business aligned on this vision?
3) Is this growth consistent with the overall purpose of the business?
4) What is the true compelling reason for the goal and is it powerful enough?
5) What external elements exist which affect the goal? (eg, is my product in need of refresh in a failing market?)

To name but a few.

So, what is the answer to this?

I categorise the missing elements as follows:


Is the goal consistent with value system and intent of the business or person; is it resonant with their belief system?

I support clients to create deeply purposeful goals by ensuring that first they explore the value system which exists for them. Then creating goals which have a deep connection with this value system.

Any goal created without recourse to the value system is one which is almost certainly doomed to mediocrity or failure.


Does the goal comply with the entire system and other goals set internally which relate to it?

The whole system should be coherent and aligned in its goals and contexts. It should have a clearly defined overarching context, or goal, for the whole ecosystem. Goals need to be nested and have been set with regard for all other goals which affect it.


Is the goal large enough and is there an incredibly compelling reason for its existence?

Goals which are big enough in their purpose tend to be treated more seriously and therefore are more often carried through. A New Year’s Resolution is mostly created without true serious intent.

Changing eating habits to avoid a heart attack or improving efficiencies in a business to avoid bankruptcy are both serious reasons for goal setting.


What external elements are at play which affect the goal and the parameters which surround that goal?

These external factors can be completely outside the ecosystem, business division, team or individual. Usually the external factors are outside of one’s control and large enough to play a significant role in success or failure.

Take action!

No conversation about goal setting is complete without the call to take action. But then you already know that…

Goals. There’s no telling what you can do when you get inspired by them. There’s no telling what you can do when you believe in them. And there’s no telling what will happen when you act upon them.
— Jim Rohn