Why SMART Goals Fail

Adam Kreek on Goal Setting That Works

Photographs of various members of the Canadian Men's Health Foundation at a breakfast meeting at the Vancouver Four Season's Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada by www.rickcollinsphotography.com<br />

Adam Kreek | Photo by Rick Collins

There’s nothing like the thought of throwing yourself in a dingy and rowing 4000 miles across an ocean to clarify your thinking on effective strategic planning and goal attainment.

I’d employed SMART goals, taught SMART goals and coached SMART goals for nearly a decade with varying success prior to my expedition, rowing from Africa to North America – unsupported in a 29-foot rowboat. However, launching into my three-year planning process made the shortfalls of the SMART planning philosophy ring loud and clear.

In case you’re rusty, SMART is an acronym that stands for: Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented, Realistic, Time-bound. You may remember the acronym a bit differently because since then, several different interpretations of the acronym have been promoted. The first known use of the term occurred in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T. Doran.

SMART goal setting forces us to pick up the gauntlet of logic and embrace rational thinking.

That said, the SMART goal method doesn’t account for, nor capitalize on, the innate emotional and collaborative nature of big projects. Nor does this method allow you to adjust when the expected outcomes change.

With my life and the life of my crew at stake, effective planning was paramount. This experience spurred my search for a versatile planning tool that would help propel me successfully across an ocean.

The result was the creation of the CLEAR Strategic Planning methodology.

The Power of Human Emotion and EQ

SMART goals harness and focus our rational brain. Important, yes. But our brain – and intelligence – is far more complicated. Humans take action based on both logical and emotional reasoning.

According to Dr. Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist who has spent his life trying to understand the most exceptional people in history, developmental, motivational and personality factors seem to matter a great deal more in long-term performance. For example, people with average IQs regularly outperform those with the highest IQs. This anomaly threw a massive wrench into the broadly held assumption that IQ was the sole source of success.

Countless studies remind us of the power and importance of emotion in decision making. Yet, too often we rely solely on rational thinking to guide decision making. Daniel Goleman eloquently demonstrates how rationality alone cannot guide sound decision making in his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence.

Travis Bradberry’s company Talent Smart details how decades of research are now pointing to emotional intelligence as a critical factor that sets star performers apart from the rest, citing that 90% of top performers have high emotional intelligence alongside a well developed rational intelligence.

Traditional, intelligence-based goal setting, like SMART goals, fails to account for EQ. When setting important goals and strategic plans, it’s essential that we incorporate both EQ and IQ into any successful achievement method.

CLEAR Goal Setting and Strategic Planning

Since my expedition across the Atlantic, I’ve worked with hundreds of corporations globally, run my own businesses solutions consultancy and direct a low-carbon startup on Vancouver Island, Canada. Whenever planning, I use the following goal setting and strategic planning tool, CLEAR.

Adam Kreek CLEAR Goals

Let’s break down each item:


Goals must include a social framework to drive momentum and completion of the task. (Primarily EQ)

Did Elon Musk found Tesla alone? No. He did it with co-founders Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. Nor did he scale this company alone. Moreover, he was not solo when he founded and built Paypal, SpaceX, SolarCity or his new “Boring Company,” that bores tunnels underground for high-speed transportation and sells flamethrowers to fundraise. Elon achieved his goals with the support, engagement and collaboration of family, friends, acquaintances, business partners, passionate hires, investors and eventually, customers. There’s no denying Elon’s high IQ, but without intense collaboration (and an EQ that recognizes how flamethrowers can engage a technically-oriented support base) he would not have been able to achieve what he has today.

It Takes a Village

Research confers. Participants in a 2014 research paper from Stanford University who were primed to act collaboratively stuck to their task 64% longer than their solitary peers. This impact persisted for several weeks.

“The results showed that simply feeling like you’re part of a team of people working on a task makes people more motivated as they take on challenges,” the researchers say.

It’s not rocket science to recognize the power of community, and yet too few of us incorporate this understanding into our goal setting and strategic plans.

Limited Goals

You must limit the scope and duration of your goal so that you can objectively determine its completion. (Primarily IQ)

Ethereum, the blockchain cryptocurrency, was not founded by accident. Founder, Vitalik Buterin, wrote an extensive white paper defining what this new cryptocurrency would be, and what it would not be. His piece of blockchain technology will revolutionize the way that governments, corporations and individuals exchange value through smart contracts. Buterin’s technology can act as the backbone for an unimaginable amount of blockchain applications. This kid was born in 1996 and is well on his way to becoming a self-made billionaire if he isn’t already. Buterin used his enormous IQ to set a clear and limited scope to his project and defined his endpoint which set him up for success.  

Dreams ≠ Goals

What is the difference between a dream and a goal? The only indicator that you have achieved your dream will be a feeling. Goals are more concrete – requiring rational intelligence. Others should objectively agree that your goal is wholly based on specific, measurable, and time-bound criteria like budgets, timelines, quality standards.

We know that effective metrics and well-designed Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) drive more results. Stacy Barr, in her book Practical Performance Measurement, notes that the true purpose of performance measurement is that it helps us achieve more of our goals sooner with less money and effort than would be possible without it.

Goal research pioneer, Edwin Locke, showed that clear, specific goals and appropriate feedback motivates employees and improves performance. Locke’s research in the 1960’s revealed that the more difficult and specific a goal is, the harder people tend to work to achieve it.

In one study, Locke reviewed a decade’s worth of laboratory and field studies on the effects of goal setting and performance. He found that, for 90 percent of the time, specific and challenging (but not too challenging) goals led to higher performance than easy, or “do your best,” goals.

Goals should make a sincere and undeniable emotional connection to your core, and the core of your employees. (Primarily EQ)

Anne Wojcicki co-founded 23andme, a genetic testing company, because of her burning desire to better understand human health. “We’re not just looking to get a venture-capital return,” Wojcicki said. “We set out with this company to revolutionize health care. Genetics is part of an entire path for how you’re going to live a healthier life.” Her emotional intelligence drove her to create one of the most compelling biotechnology companies of the past decade.

Andrea Duckworth broke academic ground when she proved that grit, fuelled by passion and persistence, consistently outperformed IQ in the attainment of goals. Simon Sinek almost broke the Internet when he made the TEDx talk “Start with Why?”. Tony Robbins broke all expectation when he came from nothing to build a net worth of over $480 million.


Each of these outstanding individuals has recognized the power of our emotions. Each has utilized their passion for engaging passion to educate the rest of us on how to be more emotionally engaged in the work we do and the projects we undertake.

Only those with a high EQ will be able to understand and articulate their emotional response in a way that engages more profound commitment to the path of goal attainment. Taking time to understand the emotional drivers behind our goals increases task engagement.

Psychologists Wilmar Schaufeli and Arnold Baker describe engagement as having the four qualities of vigour, dedication, absorption and flow.

Vigor is characterized by high levels of energy and mental resilience while working. It is the willingness to invest effort in your work, and persist the face of difficulties. Dedication is characterized by a sense of significance, enthusiasm, inspiration, pride, and challenge. Vigor and dedication are the direct positive opposites of exhaustion and cynicism, respectively.

Absorption is characterized by full concentration. You become happily engrossed in your work, time appears to pass quickly, and you find it difficult to detach yourself from work. Being fully absorbed in your work comes close to what has been described in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s landmark book, Flow. Flow is a state of optimal experience that is characterized by focused attention, clear mind, mind and body union, effortless concentration, complete control, loss of self-consciousness, distortion of time, and intrinsic enjoyment.


Large goals must be broken down into smaller actions so they can be accomplished more quickly and efficiently for long-term gain. (Primarily IQ)

When Quest creator, Shannan Penna, made her first protein bar, she experimented in a small kitchen using a rolling pin and a trusted team of wellness professionals. Her first target? Make two bars that people love. The next target for Quest? Find a machine to make more bars, more effectively. The next target? Keep up bar Quality with that new machine. The next target? Find another machine. The next target? You get my point. Having a plan and consistently focusing on the next step helped this company grow 5,700% in the first three years.

Appreciating Appreciation

Project management is a field of study that attempts to streamline the planning and execution of major projects. More complex tasks require more complex tools. Gantt charts and critical path analyses are just two methods that we can use to track the duration of achievement-dependant objectives.

The Project Management Institute is a world-class resource for professionals who lead big projects. They have found that breaking down a problem into smaller steps increases team productivity, utilizes resources more efficiently and increases the likelihood of a project being on time, on scope and on budget.

When I trained for the Olympics, we would break each four-year quadrennial into one-year objectives. Each year was broken down into eight-week training blocks. Each training block was broken down into a weekly schedule. Each week had daily workouts. Each workout had sets and reps. This structure made it easy to stay focused and work incredibly hard on the task at hand, while not being distracted, discouraged or overwhelmed by the enormity of the goal we were chasing.

The advice is time honoured, tested and true. Dream big; act small; work hard.


Set goals with a headstrong and steadfast objective, but as new situations or information arise, take action to refine and modify them.

Coffee giant Starbucks was not an immediate hit, and you would be hard-pressed to find much in common between the original version of its stores and today’s highly refined “experiences.” When Howard Schultz his first Starbucks stores, there were no chairs, the menu was written in Italian, baristas were required to wear bowties, and stores played opera music. By experimenting, refining his goals and trying new things to improve Starbucks’ products, service delivery, environment, and business culture, the company became the $15-billion global corporation it is today.

Risking the Future

Predicting the future is a difficult and perilous task. Consider the medical profession. Doctors have a difficult time predicting how long terminally ill people have left to live.

A review of more than 4,600 medical notes by research the University College London showed a wide variation in errors when doctors predicted survival, ranging from an underestimate of 86 days to an overestimate of 93 days. And it does not appear that more experienced or older doctors are any better at predicting when somebody will die than their younger counterparts.

The fact that the most skilled and educated people in our society are unable to make accurate predictions should give the rest of us mortals some hope.

Predicting the future is difficult! Goals are regularly not achieved because of information that we did not know, or situations that were out of our control.

By factoring in the unpredictable nature of the future into our goal setting methodology, we are then able to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome and ensure that we drive forward progress.

A CLEAR Implementation

Like any successful tool, implementation and consistency is the key. I employ the CLEAR goal method to all my pursuits, personal and professional. I use this planning method in my consulting practice with executive teams, and I have seen it drive remarkable results.

Want to start implementing these CLEAR techniques?
For a list of questions that you can use to guide your goal setting practice click here.

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