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Limitations of SMART Goals

Limitations of SMART Goals
We talked about using the SMART goal framework as a very practical tool to set effective goals. But there’s significant limitations associated with the SMART goal framework. And I would like for us to walk through these limitations and to be aware of the risks that the SMART goal framework can entail when it comes to setting goals.
Now the first limitation of the smart goal framework is that it’s a very tactical framework. It helps you set very specific, very measurable, very crisply defined goals, but it gives you very little insight as to what extent these goals are linked with the strategy or the vision of your team, or the organization. And, as a result, it can lead you to set dangerously unwise goals.
So let me give you an example, many years ago, Ford developed a Ford Pinto model. With a very specific, measurable, SMART goal attached to it, which is design and manufacture a car of under $2,000 a piece. Now, as a result of that smart goal, there were certain compromises made during the design and manufacturing phase, such as it was a lighter model and it didn’t have as much protection. As a result, it was particularly vulnerable even in low speed crashes. In particular, the fuel tank would crack. The fuel would leak and it led to fires and explosions.
When Ford executives first learned of this defect, they remained so committed to this under 2,000 goal per vehicle that they did a rational cost benefit analysis of what would be more beneficial for the company. To pull the cars off the market and fix the design floor or to pay off in injury and death liability lawsuits? Their analysis favored keeping the car on the market and it was not until much later when that defect in Ford Pintos was linked to 53 documented fatalities, and many more injuries, that Ford decided to pull the car off the market and fix the design flaw.
So again, in this particular case, the goal was very SMART and crisply defined, but it had very little congruence with the strategy and the vision of the company. If your key strategic goal, if your key strategic comparative is to design a safe vehicle for your drivers and passengers, then all the SMART goals should build on that strategic prerogative. Recall that in week one of this course, we talked with Scott about setting effective vision and strategy for your team. It is absolutely imperative that your SMART goals are aligned with that vision and strategy for your team.
And again, recognize that because the SMART goal framework is very tactical, it doesn’t necessarily give you insights as to to what extent your SMART goals are aligned or misaligned with the strategy and vision of the team. Now the second limitation of SMART goals is that they can promote unethical behavior. Recall that in the early segments of this course we talked about stretch goals and
aggressive goals promoting unethical behavior. Well, it turns out that goals don’t need to be aggressive. They don’t need to be stretch goals to promote unethical behavior. They just need to be specific. Research by Maurice Schweitzer and colleagues shows that individuals who have specific goals are four times as likely to overstate their performance, essentially to lie about their performance, compared to individuals that don’t have specific goals. Such as those that have a do your best type of goal. What’s even more disturbing is that it’s those people who fall just short of their goal, they are especially likely to lie about their performance. So it creates a pretty significant concern with respect to these near misses and unethical behavior in organizations.
Now there are a variety of things you can do within your team within your organization to make sure that you rectify this problem. One is, of course, you want to make sure that you manufacture a culture of ethical behavior. But more importantly, as a team lead, you wanna make sure that you develop tolerance for failure. One of the key reasons we see this unethical behavior popping up when goals are challenging, when they’re stretch goals or goals are specific, is often employees are hesitant to talk about their failures. You want to make sure that your teammates feel comfortable coming to you and saying that, look, in this situation, I don’t think we’re gonna make this goal and here’s why.
Especially if you’re in the business of setting challenging, aggressive goals, specific goals. You wanna make sure that there’s this comfort in your team for those situations where people didn’t quite make it. Now the third limitation associated with SMART goals is that it’s a very discrete framework.
this beautiful check list. But it gives you very little insight into how these goals can be interrelated. What could be the positive or negative interdependencies among those goals? Goals can be mutually reinforcing and then you’re in luck. But they can be in direct conflict with one another. So for example, if I have a goal of increasing sales and another goal of decreasing advertising budget, those two goals can be in conflict with each other. In corporate settings we’ll often see it in the context of poorly coordinated product launches. Any particular product launch can be couched in a very smart, very crisply defined checklist around goals.
But when you look at them jointly, marketing efforts get diluted, customer attention wanders, and sometimes, different products end up cannibalizing each other’s market share. I want to change the pace of our discussion a little bit. I wanna show you a video. In this video, you will see players passing basketballs to one another. I’m gonna ask you to count the number of passes players wearing white make.
To be clear, for those of us who are not fans of basketball for example, the pass can be an aerial pass, in which case the ball travels entirely through the air on the way to another player, or it can be a ground pass, in which case the ball would bounce off the ground prior to reaching another player. So again, I’m asking you to count the number of passes that players wearing white make.
For those of you who saw the gorilla, what else did you see? Did you see that one of the players from the black team left the stage? And that the curtain changed colors. So that we’re certain we’re talking about the same video still, let’s take another look. You will see here that a gorilla walks onto the stage, one of the black teammates leaves the stage and the curtain changes colors. This video illustrates another limitation of SMART goals. Specifically, goals that are too specific. They lead to tunnel vision. They narrow our attention focus too much sometimes. So we’re missing the most blatant, obvious things around us. On average, about 50% of people miss the gorilla.
Now if I make that goal even more specific, and arguably more cognitively complex, such as I would ask you to count separately the number of aerial and ground passes in this basketball game, only about 30% would see the gorilla. That again illustrates how specific goals can contribute to this tunnel vision, can narrow our attention and focus too much. Here you’re looking at a typical lung scan that radiologists use to detect lung nodules. Do you see anything unusual in this lung scan? Now, if you missed this gorilla in the top right corner, don’t be too hard on yourself, because about 83% of radiologists missed that gorilla too.
What’s even more disturbing is that this gorilla is about 48 times the size of an average lung nodule. But again you have a very specific goal to look for lung nodules. And sometimes, it makes you oblivious to the most obvious, blatant things that are going on around this goal. So at some point, you might consider relaxing the specificity condition. So I’ll give you a specific example. When we ask people to proofread a document for grammatical errors, they’re very good at detecting grammatical errors, but they’re completely oblivious to blatant content errors. When we ask people to just proofread the document in general, they’re equally good at catching grammatical errors, but they’re also very good at detecting content errors.
So think about relaxing the specific condition if you’re concerned that a very, very specific goal can narrow people’s attention too much. And the final concern and limitation of SMART goals, is that specific goals can constrain our learning and creativity. That is especially true for those environments that are complex. That are poorly understood. Where you have a wide choice of decision-making strategists on the way to accomplishing a particular goal. That’s when specific goals can really backfire. There’s a classic study of air traffic controllers that found that specific goals diminished their ability to learn on the job. We had similar effects in negotiations research.
If you walk into a very complex negotiation, specific goals limited your ability to acquire new negotiation strategies, learn them, and apply them in a negotiation. Airline colleagues for example gave us some insight as to why we’re much more likely to see this behavior when people are faced with specific goals. It turns out that when we have specific goals, we’re much more likely to be very impatient and even chaotic in our search from one strategy to another. Meaning if we discover a particular strategy to accomplish a goal, we don’t sit on that strategy long enough to figure out to what extent that strategy shapes performance.
We tend to move on to the next strategy way too quickly, before fully understanding the performance implications of the first one. And that, in the long run, really constraints our ability to learn. So again, think about this, if you’re facing a familiar environment, the environment that you understand reasonably well, the environment where you have a very specific subset of strategies that can help you obtain a particular goal. And the environment where you have a set of good intuitions about what would be the most optimal strategy to reach a particular goal. That’s when specific goals can be quite effective.
But if the environment is poorly understood, if it’s complex, if you have a wide range of strategists to reach a particular goal. And again, you don’t have a strong intuition as to which strategy would be the most effective, the optimum one. Think of setting less specific goals. As you might recall in the beginning of our discussion on SMART goals I mentioned to you that there is one set of circumstances where do you best can actually be an effective goal. Well this is one set of those circumstances. In those complex, ambiguous, poorly understood environments, do your best can actually be an effective goal.
Basketball Video

Please watch this video, and count the number of passes that players wearing white make. Afterwards, you may wish to revisit “Limitations of SMART Goals beginning at 06:48.”

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