Being SMART may not be so smart after all. 

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions this year? If so, I’m guessing that some of them are still in the works, such as those involving goals for the entire year. Are they making you frustrated? It’s no secret that, along with performance evaluations, goal setting is one of those things people never quite learn to love. And yet, setting goals is one of those things everyone (particularly authors and bloggers) expects successful business people to do, despite the fact that successful business people often hate doing things other people expect of them.

But tradition is tradition, so on January 1, I sat down, pen in hand, to jot some notes. And all I could think of was the old organizational command to make your plans SMARTSpecific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. Back in the day, these were supposed to be the delimiters of sure-fire goal setting. If your goal couldn’t stand up to those, it just wasn’t making the grade.

But this is now, and now is the age of innovation. And, being a lover (and creator) of innovation, I asked myself whether I should still be following the processes of an earlier era. Here’s what emerged…

Specific stayed, because if a goal isn’t specific, how do you ever figure out where you’re headed?

And I kept Measurable, because although I don’t like rating systems, I do like to have some idea of how far I’ve come, and whether I’m still on track.

Relevant made me think hard. When you have a very broad range of applications, or you’re trying something completely new, then relevance may not be known at all during the planning stage, and can only emerge from the process. (For the fashion-aware, consider the problem of ‘orphan’ accessories. I once had a fabulous, but useless, beaded belt that I kept around for ages. Then one day an ensemble appeared in my closet that just screamed for turquoise beads.) Sometimes a thing will make itself relevant just by chance, which is a good reason for having a looser definition of the word.

Then there was Time-bound: a no-brainer because I was thinking ‘goals for 2016’ rather than the next decade or millennium.

Which brought me back to Attainable. That, too, seemed obvious…until I did a quick check in an online dictionary and learned that Attainable things are within your reach.

‘Within reach’ suggests that you can get what you want without a whole lot of stretch or effort. Now, if you keep a scoreboard that you like to decorate with a lot of wins, put plenty of ‘attainables’ on your to-do list. But if innovation and change are what you seek, then SMART goals need a warning label: DANGER: Attainable goals may be damaging to your organization’s ability to innovate.

Focusing on attainable goals could also be a turn-off to the very people who are most capable of handling risk, making discoveries, and creating innovation! Those are the people who rarely ask if something is possible or not. They just go for the goal – asking bigger questions, covering more ground, trying harder, and stretching further.

In Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ books, there was the White Queen who said, “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!” No one would accuse her of SMART planning – and yet, believing the impossible to be possible is a sure way to bypass the barrier of achievability. Can you imagine what might happen if your goals didn’t need to be achievable? I can.

  1. You’d have nothing to lose. With no one expecting sure-fire success, you could feel free to take some wild-ass swings. Sure, some will be whiffs, but you might just knock the ball out of the park. (Believe it or not, fear is the biggest cause of failure.)
  1. You can still go for simple solutions. If they don’t work, you’ll be right: your goal wasn’t achievable. But you’d be primed to succeed, so you’d try an alternative path. And another, and another. And should you eventually get there, so much the better! (Being right and winning are not the same – but they’re not mutually exclusive.)
  1. You’d forever leave the ranks of the narrow-minded; the people who put the ‘no’ in innovation, joining instead the ones who bring positive change and brighter futures.

May your ‘impossible’ of 2016 become your successful innovation of 2017!