The One Thing Missing from the SMART Goal Setting Acronym

We've all learned that when setting goals, you want to set “S.M.A.R.T” goals. “S.M.A.R.T” here is an acronym for:

Specific

Measurable

Attainable

Relevant

Time-Based

All of these are great and should indeed inform your own goal creation strategy. However, there's one more piece you should add on to it which is a

Consequence of failure.

If you fail to meet your goal by the due date, you need to have a big consequence — big enough to motivate you to take this goal seriously. This happens naturally with high-urgency/high-importance tasks that most of us are stuck dealing with every day (since we neglected to do them before they became 4-alarm fires). If we fail to get these these done “right now!” we’ll face consequences immediately. However, if we are to take Stephen Covey’s advice and focus on accomplishing the important but non-urgent goals for a more productive and stress-free life, we’ll need to engineer some urgency. We’ll need to establish our own consequences.

An example will help. Take the S.M.A.R.T goal, “Publish 10 new blog posts over the next week, due at 8am Monday November 30th”. It is specific, measurable, and the like. By all means, it’s a perfectly well-formed goal (assuming that publishing blog posts is aligned with my overarching life/career objectives — aka Relevant”). If I pull it off, I will feel great and, who knows, maybe I’ll become a world-famous blogger!

With personal goals however, if I don’t pull it off, well… there’s always next week, right? I’ll feel great then and possibly become famous then. Point: There is no real consequence of failure here and any reward is still attainable. Thus, to maximize the probability that we reach our own personal goals, we will do well to engineer our own motivating consequence of failure (and skip setting up rewards for ourselves).

My own strategy is to make one-sided bets with friends, family, and colleagues that know about my personal goal. For instance, regarding these blog posts, I posted this to my team:

Now, I have a measurable goal that is S.M.A.R.T, but I also now have a definite, and motivating, consequence of failure. I guarantee you that I do NOT want to give hundred-dollar bills out to my colleagues on Monday (and my wife DEFINITELY doesn’t). Am I sufficiently motivated now? You bet I am.

So, while it is great to SMARTly define your goals. I recommend always having a motivating consequence for failure to actually get yourself off of the couch and into the action. Two notes though:

  1. The consequence needs to be severe enough to be motivating.
  2. You’d better pay up. Don’t be that guy. It’s not cool.

Applications to Business Contexts

Creating SMART goals is, of course, also great to do in business too. However, to motivate yourself or your team to actually strive to reach those goals by the stated deadline, you need to make clear the consequence of failing to accomplish the goal. Examples may include:

  • We miss the RFP deadline and thus the chance for a $10 billion contract.
  • Leadership will not trust to you lead the next project.
  • A red note in your performance review.
  • You’re fired.

It can be anything so long as 1) it’s been made explicit to the team and 2) it is sufficiently severe to be motivating.

It doesn’t need to be doom-and-gloom at work though. Unlike with the personal goals above where I argued against the effectiveness of rewards since you can always accomplish the goal later and reap the rewards later, rewards from the organization can be effective in business contexts. In a business context, you can’t simply achieve the goal a week later and still hope to get the same rewards. Thus, the impactfulness and scarcity of these rewards (i.e. they’re time-bound) can be motivating. E.g.

  • quarterly bonuses
  • commissions
  • promotions
  • other tokens (Amazon had a coveted prize that was just an old sneaker)

So, using a reward as a consequence in business can be effective so long as 1) it’s been made explicit to the team and 2) it is sufficiently impactful to be motivating.

Managers, just don’t forget:

  1. The reward needs to be impactful enough to be motivating.
  2. You’d better pay up. Don’t be that guy. It’s not cool.

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Zachary Keeton

Zachary Keeton

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A 15th-year Web Dev/Engineering Manager. Formerly building products and leading teams at Plus One Robotics in San Antonio, Texas, USA