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Beyond SMART: The Three Missing Enablers to Strategic Impact for 2018

In a way, working with SMART has dumbed us down. We are all familiar with the oft-cited mnemonic acronym for: specific, measurable, achievable/agreed upon, realistic/reachable, and time-bound. 

As we work with our teams to set strategy and direction for the New Year, I think there is a trap in adhering strictly to this traditional approach. Something is missing, and perhaps we need to rethink a new framework for 21st Century strategic thinking and goal setting. 

Best-selling author and Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Charles Duhigg would likely agree on the limitations of SMART. In his most recent book, “Smarter Better Faster,” he points out that this goal-setting approach can be counter-productive, creating tunnel vision thinking and a drive to reach for more short-term, easier-to-obtain objectives when broader, bolder action is required.  

A Framework of Three Adders

Going beyond the SMART approach, consider three linked questions to raise your direction-setting to be more strategic with higher impact:

1.     What’s the business outcome? (So that)

2.     What will be de-prioritized or dropped? (Instead of)

3.     What does work need next for the long-view? (And then)



“So That”

The so that is crucial because it forces consideration about impact, not just activity.

For example, “To successfully roll-out 12 digital sales training modules in the first quarter” might be a fine SMART goal for an L&D leader. But it may also be completely inadequate.  

The only way to gauge for sure is to ask, “ So, then what happens? So that sales quota attainment will increase 10%? Or, new sales representatives will contribute 50% more to top line growth in the year? Or perhaps, so that a critical new product introduction will reach benchmark market share?”  

Being clear on the impact not only ensures that you are working on the right stuff, it can also help you do the right stuff in the right way. In this example, the content of the training could vary significantly depending on desired outcome. Furthermore, so that thinking often creates more meaningful targets for measurement and dashboard reporting.  

“Instead Of”

SMART never calls for trade-offs. Questions about organizational muscle and resourcing, change management, and basic capacity are not explored. Instead of helps you to push goal-setting discussions to include decisions about what gets cut, delayed, or reduced. It asks what will be de-prioritized or changed so the choice to do something well is supported by intentionally choosing what not to do.  

The best instead of candidates are often legacy programs that, while still liked, have lost some of the high-value payoff they once held. Organizational loyalty and fluency protect these programs in some cases well beyond their true useful shelf lives. And if not addressed, they take precious capacity away from more current and pressing opportunities.  

In the example of the new digital sales training roll-out, a team might answer the instead of challenge by dropping a legacy classroom program that has seen declining interest and postpone a new negotiations program until later in the year.  

Expect resistance when posing instead of. Here your work on so that will be a critical touchstone. Ensuring everyone is aligned with what is most needed for the future allows for a candid and objective review of the work today. Bigger impact and bolder decisions rely in part on our ability as talent leaders to own the outcomes and influence leaders on the path forward.  

“And Then”

SMART goals are bite-sized and time-bound so the thinking often degrades to close-in, narrow work. The reality is that our organizations today are complex ecosystems and there are rarely just a few SMART goals at play.  

In ensuring a real impact, sequencing matters, as does what happens before, during, and after the work. So, before you conclude your strategic planning and goal-setting work, consider the effort necessary on the other side of goal attainment. There will be a need for reinforcement, follow-up support, and adjustments to keep in step with the requirements of continual change.  

It’s quite common for talent initiatives to make an impressive, encouraging launch and then fade away or never reach its true potential. In fact, many of the talent leadership teams we know admit to having strength in the start and a weakness in what comes later.  

And then requires the ability to pause and take a strategic perspective of future conditions and consequences rather than rush into action. Rather than staging one-act plays reframing goal setting with and then thinking produces a series of acts that build stronger follow-through and impact.  

For example, the sales training goal might require updates for new product changes, adjustments to improve effectiveness, and a second series of reinforcements built into the CRM. A strategic follow-up act might be to establish a new baseline of sales capabilities with an integrated performance management assessment for further training and also begin a series of front-line sales leadership coaching to support the new sales approach.  

The Interplay of These Three Strategic Enablers

Finally, the real power of adding these three questions to goal setting is the connection among them. So that linkage provides the justification for instead of. And that choice frees up resources for stronger so that execution as well as and then resourcing and longer-term planning. And the follow-up effort provides the comprehensive, sustained contribution that any meaningful so that would need. Each phrase provides a better strategic lens to your goal setting and together enable your planned efforts to have optimal impact. All in all, it’s a smarter way.  

This topic is explored in more detail in the December 2017 issue of Talent Quarterly magazine.  

Kevin Wilde is the former Chief Learning Officer at General Mills and a strategic adviser to i4cp.

Kevin Wilde
Kevin D. Wilde is a strategic business advisor to the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and currently serves as an executive leadership fellow at the University of Minnesota. His prior 34-year corporate career includes serving as the head of learning and talent management at General Mills. Chief Learning Officer magazine named him CLO of the Year in 2007. His most recent award-winning book is, “Coachability: The Leadership Superpower.”