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4 September 2015

What do SMART goals have to do with complexity?

Written by
Patrice Laslett

I was working with a client last week and we were discussing setting a goal for his own development. I realised over the course of our conversation that we were both falling into more complicated ways of thinking about the goal when the goal itself was pretty complex. I began to muse about the ways we have to think about goal setting in a new way in the complex world. Since Locke & Latham’s research into goal setting and motivation in the 1960’s there has been a mountain of research to show that people who set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable/attainable, Realistic/relevant and Time bound) goals are more likely to achieve their aims than people who don’t. So one of the most common questions complexity consultants like us get is: “But how do goals fit in with all this complexity thinking?” Smart goals work because they harness our observation bias towards chosen desired outcomes. As humans, we tend to see what we expect to see rather than seeing what is there, so when we set Specific SMART goals, we are coding into our observation bias and turning it to a particular direction. The Measurable part helps us lean against our tendency to overemphasise negative outcomes and realise when we have achieved something positive. Making goals Achievable stops our tendency to be overwhelmed by seeing all that needs doing and giving up in response. Making them Realistic and Relevant gives us the opportunity to harness our emotions and make decisions that matter to us. Being Timely or Time bound gives us a deadline and we all know how that helps to work against our tendencies to procrastinate and get caught up in the urgent and forget about the important. Once we open our eyes to the complexity we all live and work in we start to see the limitations of some of our previous linear models, but that doesn’t mean we have to throw them all out. We can keep working with SMART goals–just in a different way. We can use the 3 Habits of Mind (asking different questions, taking multiple perspectives and seeing systems) to enhance the power of goal setting. With complex situations we can be specific about the direction we would like a system to go in without deluding ourselves that we can set a destination and plan to get there. We can apply the 3 Habits of Mind while heading in that direction. For example:

  • While I am focussed on this direction what am I not seeing that I might want to see?
  • What are our client’s and other stakeholders’ perspectives on this direction?
  • How will setting this specific direction affect other aspects of what we are trying to do?

When we think about measuring we could deliberately see the system by asking different questions:

  • What am I not measuring that might also be important?
  • Are there measurements I can take that will give me early warning signs that I can amplify this measure safely or I need to dampen down a particular emergent effect quickly?
  • Can I measure with types of stories rather than with numbers?

When looking at the realism of a plan, it’s a good time to think about the boundaries that seem to already be in the current system and may become obstacles to moving the system in the desired direction. Once the plan is in motion, we can question what we are learning about in regard to the boundaries we are hitting up against that have emerged because we nudged the system. What do these new boundaries look like from multiple perspectives? When we set time frames for our plan, complexity theory would suggest that it’s only realistic to set goals in near timeframes because there are too many possibilities for unforseen change the further out we go. In this VUCA world “timely” means learning about the present by constantly and repeatedly checking in on whether we are heading in the direction we want and need to be going. A key part of how we encourage people to embrace complexity is to run safe to fail experiments (STFX) to sense into the system they are trying to understand and nudge. SMART goals come in handy for these STFX’s. Being specific, measurable (in terms of knowing when to amplify and when to dampen), realistic and quick are great guidelines for STFX’s. If we think of the A as standing for actionable then we can also remember that the point of STFX’s is to see what the system does when we nudge it rather than deluding ourselves that we know what will be achieved. So SMART goals are still useful in complexity. We just need to think of them as Specific and fine grained, Measurable in many ways, Actionable in the short term, Realistic, and Timely fast. With a little mindshift, my client and I were able to come up with 5 STFX’s that take advantage of all we know about goal setting as well as what we know about using the complexity of a situation to our advantage. In that way, we can be SMART and complex.

2 thoughts on “What do SMART goals have to do with complexity?”

  1. The Role of Subcultures in Agile Organizations.

  2. Richard says:

    What would you say is the key differences between managing personal goals, and lets say goals you make for an organization? From a complexity point of view.

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