Are Your Goals Measure-Worthy?

July 5, 2011 by Stacey Barr

There are indeed a few different opinions out there about what makes a goal worth measuring. So why are so many of our goals so hard to meaningfully measure?

Don’t try to be SMART…

The SMART acronym is too confusing. People don’t know whether goals should be SMART or whether performance measures should be SMART. They don’t know what “specific” really means (that’s what the S stands for). They aren’t sure if R stands for realistic or relevant. And if A is for achievable then does that mean you can’t have stretch goals?

To write great goals, asking these four questions is all you need:

goal setting chalkboard

Question 1: Does everyone share the same understanding of this goal?

It’s a mistake to try to use as few words as possible to write goal statements. That’s because, for whatever reasons, we use very weasely language and end up with motherhood statements that can’t be measured. In my experience, the vast majority of goals are so vague that 7 different people can easily have 13 different interpretations of the same goal. Not good.

Question 2: Can we easily recognise when the goal is happening, through observation?

You can’t measure something that you can’t observe. If you can’t observe it, then you can’t know when it’s happening or when it isn’t happening. If you have a goal like this, then it can’t really be a goal. What’s the point of aiming for something you can’t see or recognise or discern as different in some way from how things are now?

Question 3: Does this goal matter more than all the things we’re not going to measure?

If you’re going to measure something, then it really ought to be something you should, can and will improve. We don’t have enough time to measure everything; it’s distracting to measure something just because it’s easy to; and it’s wasteful to measure something if we really don’t need to take any action on it. Only measure results you want to improve, or results that might not need to be improved but you need to urgently remedy if they do take a turn in the wrong direction.

Question 4: Is the goal about making a difference in the world, or just about doing stuff?

Most of what we measure is action: how much stuff did we do and how much of it did we do on time? If we keep on measuring activity, our attention will stay focused on doing activity. But what we really want is to make our world (or our little part of it) better in some way. That’s why we do the activity, anyway. So make sure your goals are about the results of your activity, so you can then monitor the degree to which you’re making that difference in the world you set out to make.

TAKE ACTION: Ask these four questions of your own current strategic or operational goals. Do your goals pass muster? Remember: it’s never to late too change a goal that isn’t measure-worthy.

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  1. Thanks for putting together what ought to be No1 in our discussions with chief executives. Your points are not only relevant, but also practical, attainable (in SMART terms) and very comprehensive. If we answer these questions first and clients insist on using SMART framework because in their studies they’ve learnt it is effective, they may very well do so.

  2. Mike Foy says:

    Stacey,

    As ever you make a useful point. Although I understand where you are coming from I think on Q3 though that somebody in the organisation needs to measure some things that may not warrant attention at a given point in time but may do so in the future, particularly where such measures may provide a leading context to a lagging measure. If not there is a danger that because something is going well at a given point it gets no attention until it has gone wrong.

    Cheers

    Mike

  3. Kim says:

    We always had such a hard time coming up with “specific” goals, objectives, requirements, outcomes, etc. Now I know why? Thank you for shining the light, as you always did with complex topics of performance management.

    Having said that, I’m still trying to digest your “pointed” questions about the characteristics of the “Goal.”
    1) Questions 1 and 2 are relevant.
    2) Questions 3 and 4 are too theoretical. I’m lost. Not sure why you asked those questions.

    I would submit that SMART is still a good standard for defining goals and objectives. Perhaps it would help us more, if you ask 5 sets of questions related to the S, M, A, R, and T attributes/characteristics of goals and objectives.

  4. Stacey Barr says:

    Michalis – thanks for your lovely feedback!!

    Mike – yes, lead indicators are certainly valuable. While they’re often hard to find (they need to provide truly LEAD information which means predictive) I think they fall under Q3 just fine as they are measures that “you need to urgently remedy if they do take a turn in the wrong direction”.

    Kim – for me, questions 3 & 4 are important these days because so many people are measuring too much that doesn’t matter. They are either measuring easy things instead of the important things (Q3) or they are measuring their activity rather than their results (Q4). It’s a problem I come across very often – almost with every single client. They know they aren’t measuring the right things, but they don’t realise these are the reasons. And they are easy to fix when you follow a process like PuMP (http://www.staceybarr.com/pump). SMART doesn’t seem to address this well enough.

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