Why Your Goals Should Be FAST, not SMART

Originally appeared at Inc.

Leaders are responsible for setting and managing goals for their teams. For most people, this means following a well-established process of designing SMART goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. This approach has been used by many leaders to execute strategy and track performance, but is the conventional thinking on goal-setting doing enough to communicate each team member’s promise and potential?

According to researchers at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, SMART goals undervalue ambition, focus narrowly on individual performance, and ignore the importance of discussing goals throughout the year. Instead, they recommend that leaders focus on goals that are FAST–frequently discussed, ambitious, specific, and transparent.

Goals should be frequently discussed. 

Depending on the nature of your work, realities can shift quickly: A sudden pivot in a project, unforeseen changes in team leadership, and new market conditions or client requests call for priorities to be reconsidered and realigned. Waiting for a capstone event (year-end reviews) to address an employee’s goals is simply not sufficient.

Consider setting and discussing goals on a quarterly basis. Several high-profile companies, including Microsoft, IBM, and Accenture, have recently transformed their traditional performance appraisal process to incorporate ongoing discussions on how employees are doing against their goals, which keeps these objectives top of mind throughout the year. 

Goals should be ambitious.

Setting goals that are “safe” may allow employees to feel good about their progress, but it may also deter them from the trial-and-error experimentation required to grow. By establishing ambitious goals for their team, leaders set a tone that promotes risk-taking and conveys faith in the abilities of others. 

Asking people to stretch past their comfort zone may require leaders to seriously reconsider how rewards are tied to work. A 40-year study on motivation found that intrinsic motivation–defined by a genuine sense of purpose and challenge–was nearly six times more effective than external incentives in motivating people to complete complex, creative tasks. People may be more willing to take risks in their work when they don’t fear repercussions in their jobs. 

Goals should be specific. 

Translating goals into action requires clarity and coherence. When leaders use specific metrics or milestones to track progress, employees know what is expected of them and how they can deliver on those objectives. 

With specifics, less is more. A meta-analysis of 83 interventions in organizations including the U.S. Air Force, high-tech manufacturing plants, and hospitals found that setting only a handful of objectives, assigning simple metrics to each goal, and providing regular feedback improved performance enough to move an average team to the 88th percentile of performance. Simplifying the details helps others think through the steps of how to achieve their goals without becoming overwhelmed.

Goals should be transparent.

While it’s understandable that certain goals–such as those related to individual improvement–must be kept private, team objectives should be aired for all to see and know. Leaders should bring greater visibility to the responsibilities of different groups within their organizations. Not only can this publicity shape a collective understanding of strategy and values, it can also help team members locate colleagues in similar situations who can provide advice on how they can do better.

It is every leader’s job to bring out the best in other people. By focusing on goals that are FAST, not just SMART, you’ll help others see their path of progress more clearly. 

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