S.M.A.R.T goals, not always the best approach

origanius pietverhoeve Dec 13, 2021
chalkboard with "set goals" written on it accompanied with a drawn shooting target

Each time you start thinking of a project collaboration the goal question pops up. To successfully collaborate it is important to define the goals accurately. If you don’t define the goals, the project could end up to be great fun without delivering results.

 All project managers know the drill: when setting goals in a project they need to be S.M.A.R.T. goals, a much-used acronym that stands for:

  • Specific: clear, well defined no room for ambiguity
  • Measurable/Meaningful: specific criteria that enable you to measure the progress
  • Achievable/Acceptable: all partners accept the goal to be achievable
  • Realistic/Relevant: within the boundaries of resources
  • Timely: time based, creating a sense of urgency

The general idea behind this concept is: the more specific the goals are, the easier it is to steer the project and direct all efforts towards achieving the results intended. All partners are aware of the final goals and measuring the progress at regular intervals helps the project manager to steer the project.

The S.M.A.R.T. goals concept is proven and brings great benefits during execution phase of a project collaborations. The more the direction is clear, the easier it is to generate ideas and solutions, make them more concrete. Concrete ideas result in concrete plans and concrete actions.

When looking back at the many projects and collaborations that I’ve been part of during the past decades, I noticed that this SMART approach fails often and even kills the chances for successful collaboration in an early stage.

When you apply the SMART concept in the early stages of the collaboration forming process, it's actually a great way to kill future collaboration. 

Just think of it, it is very easy to be overly specific in the description of the goals. At its best the result will be very concrete, but it will eliminate all options for collaboration due to the specificity. 

Suppose you want to collaborate for reducing traveling costs. In that case carpooling is a model for setting-up collaboration. It is a clear win-win collaboration model: both driver and passenger reduce travel costs.

As you need to travel from Ghent to Brussels next Tuesday morning, so you head for the available carpooling websites and start specifying your ride. Remembering the S.M.A.R.T. approach you specify the collaboration constraints as concrete as possible: pick up location at your doorstep at 7.06 am, electric car, pre heated seats, drop off at the office, etc. You get the picture.

So, how may matches will this collaboration request with S.M.A.R.T goals deliver ?

Probably none, specifying the collaboration goals too S.M.A.R.T. will result in zero matches, thus not realizing your collaboration goal and not enabling you to reduce your traveling costs.

The S.M.A.R.T.-er your collaboration goals are the less chances you’ll have to realize the collaboration you want. So, if you want to create successful collaboration you need to loosen the S.M.A.R.T. approach and create room for your potential partners to fill in.

In the carpooling example you could loosen the timeframe for traveling, change the pickup point to a more accessible location than your doorstep, drop the engine type etc.

At first sight might seem like a bad compromise where you must give up own goals to achieve collaboration. In a great collaboration no partner should ever give up goals, especially not when a win-win collaboration is targeted. To achieve win-win you loosen up the constraints, not the goals.

Do you want to know more on how to build successful win-win collaborations? Check out my book Win-Winnovation, available in English and Dutch.

Want to know more on this article or do you have questions? Contact me!


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