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I have to hope the title of this blog hasn’t already turned people away because it contains the word “goals”.  In the corridors of many organisations across the globe there are a highly motivated bunch of people who love goals so much that the first quarter of the year brings rich excitement as they think about how to document what they want to achieve in 2016.  However, in the dark corners of many office blocks there sits in the shadows people cowering under the pressure of this hideous time of year when once AGAIN they have to try and think of something to show their Manager that hopefully somewhat resembles a personal, organisational, team, project, individual or other descriptive “goal”.


One of the most memorable conversations I ever had with someone that worked for me wasn’t about having to set goals, it wasn’t even about it purely being in place to help support how bonuses were paid, it was about how restrictive and uninspiring it was.  They explained to me that by the end of March they were expected to have committed to ~ 4 goals against which their performance would be judged for the year.  All goals had to be SMART goals.

SMART goal model

As I am not a fan my summary may not be received well by all but to me the meaning of SMART is: Specific is about having clarity so it’s clear and unambiguous and a child could judge if you have achieved it.   Measurable is all about numbers – the more measureable steps the better so everyone focuses on hitting those numbers!  It has to be Achievable so you can accomplish it within the constraints of time, money, abilities etc.   Next it can’t be a wish or a punt in the dark – it has to be Realistic with a high level of confidence in it being achieved.   Finally, a SMART Goal is Time-Bounded with specific schedules to reach each part of the goal so it is easier for people to achieve the goal on schedule.


So for me SMART goals have always seemed a little safe, a little like a sure thing.   I was never inspired but appreciated in a large global company there needed to be some kind of framework.  To my employee it meant that in reality staff could just focus on 4 goals and at the end there would be an opportunity for a bonus and he questioned the value of that for staff and the company.    Why couldn’t someone have just a single goal – why does a comparison of a numerical number of goals indicate a high performance or greater value?  His argument was that it also switches people off wanting to be energised, proactive and keen to explore new ideas and possibilities as the year went on because they may wander outside of the areas dictated by their goals.    His argument was that setting goals for the year worked well for some roles/jobs but not all and by having a corporate “blanket” approach that everyone followed wasn’t at all smart and it didn’t really help inspire a higher and more aspirational performance.


We all know that traditional performance management is in place to help to align individual activities with the organization’s strategic priorities, enhance two-way communication, and improve individual and organizational performance – and pretty much in every case it all starts with goals.  I know it isn’t just focused on goals in many organisations but the weight of goals in overall performance management in my opinion is still too skewed.  A well-functioning performance management process should facilitate good management by good managers who are trained as coaches and mentors (of people) rather than as evaluators and graders (of goals and data).  New hires today are dynamic and transparent with high-potential young employees wanting regular feedback and career progression advice with a focus on variety and development and not a one off end of year review discussion supported by monthly updates on progress of goals.    Although the current focus of many published articles may be on people joining organisations, in my experience this can be easily translated to the same frustrations and challenges of long term staff who want to work in a way that generates value for both the company AND themselves.  This uncovers another issue with goals – the time allocation and competence of line managers accountable for supporting performance management but that’s a topic for another blog!


Where possible the approach should be focused much more on team-centric goal-setting that helps teams improve collaboration and performance.  By focusing goals more on HOW people work together instead of WHAT the end output will be you can accelerate the focus from individuals (self), to team and through to organisation. If you tell me my rating, pay rise or bonus will depend on my goals then the focus is me, my projects, my deliverables, my performance but if you push that more to how the teams I work in performs and not just their deliverable then my focus changes dramatically.   By this I mean instead of the team goal being that by x date the team will deliver y product to a quality standard of z it would be more like, on completion of product y the combined team assessment score will be above 8 (as defined by the high performing team scale).  Some people frequently argue with me that this is not SMART and without a date or a quality standard the goal will be missed or not good enough.  I try and explain that it may not fall into the SMART definitions but it is CLEVER.  The push back also shows how far away we are from the mind-set shift and behavioural change needed to appreciate, embrace and benefit from team-centric goals.    If you look at the data, across the board the vast majority of employees deliver and perform above expectations and yet organisations still adopt goal systems aimed at poor or low performers.  If the “T” in SMART was for Trust instead of “Time-Bound” we may actually progress faster.

If organisations want to be able to strive for extra-ordinary results, thrive through continuous change, have highly engaged employees and everyone clear of the future vision then the teams within their organisation better have superb coaching and feedback avenues, be empowered (completely) and have a strong and self-guided team ethic.  If goals for individuals therefore are not focused on those areas and there is no ongoing coaching or mentoring, employees will revert back to “controlling” their own performance and focus purely on completing their SMART goals.


I am not suggesting for one moment all SMART goals disappear.  Many jobs and many people benefit from the framework and there are numerous sources of data that demonstrate their worth.  BUT what I am saying is that organisations should have at least a 50/50 split between SMART and CLEVER goals if there is going to be a shift and SMART goals must be team-centric wherever possible.

If I am given 3 or 4 goals to work on over a 12-month period that are all clear, with lots of easy steps to measure and I know before I start I can do it, and do it on time, then I’m sorry but I’m just not feeling motivated.   I’m not thinking differently; I’m not looking to help resolve issues or jump ahead to the future.  I’m not thinking about how my successes or failures can translate to others.  I’m just not being CLEVER but I am being SMART.

On the other hand, if you gave me a SMART goal for an individual project, two team-centric goals which focus on collaboration and team performance and then a CLEVER goal I may start to believe I can really make a difference to myself, my team and the organisation.


They are not the complete opposite of SMART goals but they are most definitely not as easy to evaluate or achieve – so the importance of line managers as coaches and frequent check-ins to talk about ideas and thoughts are key to the success (or failure) of CLEVER goals.    That’s one beautiful aspects of CLEVER goals – you can celebrate even if they fail because you tried something, learnt something and OK so it wasn’t what you set out to do but the journey was CLEVER.

CLEVER goal model

The meaning of CLEVER goals is about:  Being Courageous – the goal must involve something you have never done before or something that needs a skill or knowledge you do not have.  You should adopt a Legacy driven mind-set where you transfer your knowledge to others, therefore making a difference to others – what can you pass on to the next team, a new hire, another division?  The goal must need you to look at the External environment: what do others do that could be of benefit?  Look outside your team, department, company, industry or country to find something that helps your goal.    You must Volunteer something during or at the end of the goal.  How can what you do proactively help a colleague or a project?  What will you be able to gift to others?  The goal must incorporate an Experiment – how will you work in a different way to execute this goal?  How will you evaluate, adjust and re-try until you’ve found something new or improved something old or until you fail?  Finally, you must Rejoice – how will taking this goal please you?  Who will be delighted by it and what will you do to celebrate success or failure?


Unlike SMART goals where assessment is easy due to the quantitative design of the goal framework, for CLEVER goals it is much more intangible and is largely based on positive intent and trust.

When agreeing CLEVER goals, it is still necessary to document how you believe you will approach each element of CLEVER.  This is more about describing your thoughts, ideas and intent at the start of the year and updating these as you discover more and progress through your goal journey.  During Check-in sessions it will be important to talk about who you have connected with, what your research looks like, obstacles you’ve overcome because there will be little quantative data for Managers to review.  The two-way conversation at Check-ins will be important as Managers will be assessing how you have got on with people you’ve interacted with, who have you reached out to help, what story are you describing? They will also be looking to see if you have been willing to accept responsibility, how resourceful you have been and have you overcome problems or obstacles.    They will be looking at HOW you are performing.

There will never be a definitive and fool-proof way to measure an employee on qualitative measures of CLEVER like the quantitative soundness of SMART goals, although I am sure there will be goal lovers who could make CLEVER goals SMART!   But that is not the intent as intangibles play a critical role in an individual’s development and I remain convinced that by having a blended goal approach of SMART, team-centric and CLEVER goals we can motivate individuals from a self-focus, to include a wider remit of team-focus.  This in turn creates a culture of high performing teams which delivers organisational success.


Do CLEVER goals resonate with you or are you still drawn to SMART goals?  This blog continues in my usual approach which is to share thoughts and ideas that I believe could make a difference.  I also like to “walk the talk” and so this blog is CLEVER because I have never written about a different approach to goals and am pushing the boundaries of an existing, reputable goal process (courage).  By writing this blog I’ve transferred what I know to others and tried to pass on the concepts to a wider audience and hopefully started a few people thinking differently (legacy).  I’ve looked at all sorts of resources when thinking about CLEVER and tried to tie it all back to a goal model (external).    If you were in my office, you would see how many different words I used to make the best choice for CLEVER and how many times I’ve got it wrong and started again (experiment) and right now I am about to sign off and see if I can find a nice way to celebrate posting my blog.  Perhaps I’ll only be able to rejoice if others read and comment!

As always your dedication to reach the end of one of my blogs is massively appreciated.



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