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Beyond Smart: Alignment is the Key for Better Goals & Results


The next few weeks are arguably the most important period of time in the life of an entrepreneur or manager. It's goal-setting season! In the next two weeks leading up to the New Year, and likely for a few weeks heading into 2021, you'll spend tens of hours defining your 2021 goals with your team. Invest this time wisely and set yourself up for success in 2021 by setting aligned SMART goals. If you're anything like millions of other leaders around the world, the format you'll use SMART (specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, time-based). Fundamentally, this is a great approach. Here are three questions you ask yourself as you define your goals:

  1. In the next 12 months, what mountain will you climb? This is your Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG).

  2. What one thing is more important than anything else to help you achieve your BHAG? This is your Wildly Importantly Goal (WIG).

  3. What do you really care about? What will motivate and guide you on a daily basis as you pursue your WIG? These are your values.

There are many naysayers and countless articles explaining why SMART goals don't work, but I'm here to tell you that they're wrong. There's a reason why the SMART goal format has been the go-to for results-oriented leaders for the past 40 years. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. As tempting as it is to be a little contrarian toward SMART goals when I look back on my career in corporate America and the results I delivered, I achieved what I did in large part because of SMART goals. Every time and I do mean every time, that I truly invested in defining high-quality goals with my team, where expectations were clear and progress toward these goals was measured and evaluated at least every few weeks, the target results were achieved. In the cases where goals were SMART and aligned, the results were off the charts. ​ If you're aiming for great and not just good enough, and value an engaged team to drive results, read on. With just one small adjustment, you can make SMART goals much more meaningful, likely (and easier) to be achieved, and emotionally engaging. By aligning goals, the potential exists to drive a far better result than would otherwise be achieved by just conforming to the SMART goal format. The problem with SMART goals The general structure of SMART goals is excellent. First devised by George Doran in the early 1980s in response to the question, "how do you write meaningful objectives", he defined SMART criteria as follows: Specific - what will be accomplished? Measurable - how will the goal be measured and what are the criteria for success? Assignable - who owns the goal and will be held accountable for the result? Realistic - what extra resources are needed to accomplish the goal? There should be some stretch in the goal, but it shouldn't be a moonshot. Timely - what is the time period for the goal? What are the milestone dates and when will progress be assessed? ​ Thus far in my life, I've spent hundreds of hours defining SMART goals for me and my team, and personal goals for me and my family, and the simple fact is that SMART goals consistently work when targeting a short-term specific goal. What I've observed is that when goals are simple and clearly defined and people are held accountable for their results, (while managers play offence and remove any roadblocks in their way), businesses thrive. But as good as they are, there a few notable blind spots with SMART goals you should be aware of:

  • The immediate specificity of defining a SMART goal can limit innovation and creativity. Great things happen when new ideas are allowed to percolate and people can dream (just let your ideas run wild).

  • SMART goals can contribute to disillusionment, particularly when your performance is constantly being held to a short-term metric (for example, swings in monthly profit/loss or market share can be distressing).

  • Aversion to loss kicks in and can be a powerful motivator to compel you to achieve a SMART goal (avoid the perceived "loss" of not hitting the goal) even though there may be other, better long-term uses of your time. SMART goals can encourage you to be myopic in your focus on short-term and specific business results.

  • And finally, the criteria of alignment is missing entirely from how SMART goals are defined. It's this element of alignment which can not only motivate people to achieve their goals, but go far beyond them.

For more information about SMART goal setting (including a template), here's a link to some info that can help. SMART(er) goals through alignment SMART goals are great. Aligned SMART goals are even better. When you include the step of confirming alignment to your (or a team member's) personal and professional values, your Wildly Important Goal (WIG), and your Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG), great results are more likely to follow. These three factors of alignment are detailed in the following sections.

Alignment: Values Your values dictate how you live your life and run your business. The outcome of your decisions - and goals - are all a result of how your values guide you. When your goals are more closely aligned to values, good things happen. And while it's possible to have a mismatch, doing so often leads to missed goals, frustration, and burnout. For example, in 2021 you may have a goal to grow your business by 20%, which means more time and money invested in your business. But your personal values of family harmony and child development are getting in the way. You want to grow your business, but need to make sure your kids get the learning and support they need as we enter into year two of Covid-19. Something's gotta give - either adjust your goals or (less likely to be successful), reassess your personal values. Alignment of your goals and values engages you and your team with higher levels of emotional buy-in, commitment, and motivation to the challenges ahead. For help defining your personal and professional values, here's a tool that can help. Alignment: WIG Your WIG (copyright Franklin Covey) is your "most important objective that won't be achieved unless it gets special attention" and "failure to achieve this goal will render all other achievements secondary." As I've used it, a WIG is a very specific, customer focused, SMART goal. This is the one thing, that when done really, really well, can have a profound impact on your business. When leading the team at a heavy equipment dealership, the WIG that led to great improvements in profitability and market share was customer response time, measured and reviewed daily. Our thinking? If we delivered on this WIG (which we did), results would follow (which they did). For help defining your WIG, here's a tool that can help. Alignment: BHAG Your BHAG (copyright Jim Collins) is an "emotional tool"…"a moon shot." This is the mountain you want your business to climb. This goal completes your mission and even though incorporates a great deal of stretch, is achievable if you stick to your values, WIG, and strategy. For help defining your BHAG, here's a tool that can help. How Values, WIG and BHAG fit together Your values define how you want to run your business. Your WIG defines what is most important to drive results. Your BHAG is where you want to go. All three need to be aligned with your SMART goals to drive short-term results and long-term success. When checking for alignment, ask these 3 questions:

  1. How does this goal align with my personal and professional values, and the values of the company? For example, defining a SMART goal for yourself to grow profit by 50% is irrelevant if you have a personal value which puts family harmony and time with your kids at the top of the list.

  2. How does this goal align with my Wildly Important Goal? In my dealership example, my WIG was customer response time. Therefore, a SMART goal for my team focused on customer satisfaction would have been misaligned.

  3. How does this goal align with my Big Hairy Audacious Goal? My dealership BHAG was to drive a significant increase in market share. In the heavy equipment industry, response time, loyalty, sales, and market share are all inextricably linked together.

It is more than just possible to achieve an outrageous goal, with an engaged and happy team, when you are all aligned. Get out of the 2020 funk and step up your goal-setting game in 2021 with aligned SMART goals. --- PS - here are a few of the tips I jotted down for myself over the years to set better SMART goals:

  1. Keep your SMART goal list short. No more than 3 goals (ideally 2 business-related and 1 developmental).

  2. Keep your goals short and simple. Think Twitter length. If you can't describe your goal in 280 characters or less, you're too ambiguous.

  3. Check the progress of your goals weekly and if adjustments are needed, make small tweaks rather than big changes.

  4. Print a copy of your goals and carry them with you.

  5. Help your team craft their goals, but never do it for them. Their goals are theirs to own.

  6. Prepare short stories or quick points to share when walking around and talking to your team, particularly for your WIG and BHAG.

  7. Share your goals with your customers. Truth and transparency about what you want to accomplish can work to your advantage.


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