Goals that are SMART (“specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound”) aren’t, in fact, the most intelligent choice for your firm – so say strategy consultant Charles Sull and management lecturer Donald Sull in this research-laden MIT Sloan Management Review article. For best results, the Sulls urge, set FAST goals: “frequently discussed, ambitious, specific and transparent.”
- When managers insist on goals that are SMART (“specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound”), companies can underperform.
- Instead, set FAST goals: “frequently discussed, ambitious, specific and transparent.”
- Goals should influence daily choices and actions, such as prioritizing time and using resources. Managers and employees must revisit goals often and adjust them as needed.
- Whereas SMART goals are achievable and realistic, FAST goals aim higher – thus providing intrinsic motivation while boosting performance.
- Employees should detail the steps toward each goal and how they’ll measure progress. Openly sharing goals and strategy helps create a cooperative, aligned workforce.
Many managers swear by goals that are SMART (“specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound”). Yet, this approach can hamper a firm’s strategy. When rewards are contingent on achieving every goal, goal-setters tend to aim low, and keeping goals of private blinds employees to others’ endeavors. Instead, goals should be FAST:
- “Frequently discussed”: Don’t set goals and then forget about them until performance reviews. Goals should shape daily choices and actions, such as prioritizing time and using resources. Some firms set goals quarterly, allowing more chances to change direction. Weekly executive meetings or regular coaching can be opportunities to review goals.
- “Ambitious”: Whereas SMART goals are achievable and realistic, FAST goals aim higher. Requiring that employees achieve 100% of a goal to merit a bonus or promotion may restrain employees’ ambitions. Many Silicon Valley firms push employees to set goals they’re “unlikely to achieve in full.” Such goals can boost performance and are motivating. Firms not ready to decouple rewards from goal completion can instead set lofty company objectives, find motivated employees and swiftly promote those who meet goals.
- “Specific”: Employees should detail the steps toward each goal and how they’ll measure progress. Many tech firms, such as Intel, do so using “objectives and key results” (OKRs), an adaptation of business thinker Peter Drucker’s management by objectives model. For maximum benefit, use both qualitative and quantitative metrics. Naming the concrete steps to attain a goal helps “big-picture thinkers” transform their vision into action. This practice also allows employees to connect their individual goals to the company strategy and to clarify expectations from higher-ups. Agile firms view key results as “hypotheses” to prove or disprove and redirect their path accordingly.
- “Transparent”: Openly sharing objectives keeps individuals and teams cooperative and aligned with strategic priorities. Transparent goals create a sense of healthy competition, reveal the heights of a position or profession, and empower workers seeking guidance to find mentors. Understanding why their contributions matter engages workers. And transparency suits most corporate cultures. A 2017 study showed that staffers preferred to make more than 90% of goals transparent. Some goals must stay private – like those on legal issues – but transparency should be the rule, not the exception.
About the Authors
Donald Sull is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Charles Sull is a partner at the consultancy Charles Thames Strategy Partners.