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Isn’t it time to switch from SMART goals to FAST goals?

Photo by Mauro Gigli on Unsplash

Many organizations are using SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. The SMART concept is easy to understand for employees and teams and applying it to the daily work is usually not so challenging either. Working with SMART goals leads to clear and attainable objectives that are measurable, and for which there is a defined time-period over which the objectives should be achieved. The concept of SMART goals originates from the early 1980s, (partially) with the aim to improve the effectiveness of Management-by-Objectives. The concept has therefore been around for almost 4 decades. There are different versions of SMART with regards to the meaning of the letter A and R, for example Assignable (to persons or teams) instead of Achievable, and Attainable and Relevant instead of Achievable and Realistic. To keep things simple I will rely on the definition that I gave in the first sentence above. The limitations of SMART are equally applicable to other definitions.

Limitations of SMART goals

Set and forget

The SMART concept is not very specific about some aspects that are essential for the effectiveness of goal setting and goal realization. Let’s look more closely at the last letter of the acronym: Time-bound. That is definitely useful as it clearly outlines that we cannot work endlessly on achieving a certain result and it provides clarity to all involved about the end date that is being worked towards. But unfortunately, there is no reference to follow-up during the period for which the goal is set. The term ‘Measurable’ does not refer to follow-up either as it relates to the ability to measure whether the goal is indeed achieved. Moreover, many organizations use the SMART concept to set goals for the calendar year. All this can easily create a setting where goals are set (and where they are measurable and time-bound) but that in practice the term ‘set and forget’ is a more appropriate qualification than the term ‘SMART’.

Limited ambition

The requirements Specific, Achievable and Realistic imply that the goals that are pursued are clear, that they are within the possibilities of those involved, and that it is realistic to try to realize that goal (during the specified time period). Each goals that satisfies these criteria is in line with the concept is therefore OK. But there is no reference to the ambition level of the goals that are set. In fact, the terms ‘Achievable’ and ‘Realistic’ will create the suggestion for many employees that they’re supposed to target goals that most likely will be achieved. Failing to meet a goal that is labeled ‘Achievable’ and ‘Realistic’ is likely to have a negative connotation with it (in terms of performance). Undoubtedly, this will lead to a setting where the goals that are pursued are actually limited in ambition.

The need for a different approach

Obviously, you can address these limitations by setting up a good framework that clearly communicates the intentions and the rules of the game. But that means adding additional steps and requirements, and it will involve monitoring and steering in order to avoid the above-mentioned natural tendencies. Moreover, for many organizations there is an urgent need to increase their agility, to improve their business model and to foster cooperation and knowledge sharing between departments, teams and individual employees. Frequent follow-up and ambition are essential in these circumstances and a lack there-of can be a significant obstacle for success.

So what if we could design a new concept that effectively deals with the above-mentioned limitations? A new concept that unambiguously communicates to employees the intentions of the goal setting framework? And that knocks of 1 letter from the acronym as a bonus!

Enter FAST goals

That is exactly what Donald Sull (MIT Sloan Business School) and Charles Sull (Charles Thames Strategy Partners) did.* They propose that organizations start adopting FAST goals: Frequently discussed, Ambitious, Specific, and Transparent.

Frequently discussed

This means that the goals that are set are embedded in ongoing discussions. Status and progress are being discussed, feedback is provided and obstructions are revealed. This leads to focus and prevents that the targeted goals drop from the radar screen as ad-hoc tasks and the completion of the day-to-day responsibilities compete with goal realization. And it ensures that necessary adjustments and interventions are identified and effectuated.

Ambitious

Including the term ‘Ambitious’ in the acronym should guarantee that the goals that are pursued are truly contributions to the success of the organization and that the goal setting framework targets significant progress. This should stimulate employees to find solutions, to innovate and to experiment where needed. The degree to which the goals are ambitious (or represent ‘stretched’ goals) likely depends on the culture of the organization and the environment in which it operates (for example the urgency for improvement and progress).

Specific

The term ‘specific’ in the FAST goals concept has a much broader interpretation than with SMART goals. Specific implies that goals are measurable, including the measurement of progress, that they provide clarity on what is being targeted (no ambiguity). This means that the S in FAST goals actually covers the S and M in SMART goals, with an explicit reference to the progress measurement. This also makes intuitively more sense because when deriving a goal that is specific, the ability to measure it seems to be a logical component (and not a separate step).

Transparent

Transparent means that both the goals that are set and the status on progress are made broadly accessible within the organization, horizontally as well as vertically. This creates clarity on interdependencies and has a positive impact on collaboration and knowledge sharing. In addition, it provides context as it helps individuals and teams to understand how their objectives fit in with the larger picture. Also, it reveals that at all levels in the organization, the ambitious goals that are set are not always fully achieved. All this positively impacts the psychological safety that employees perceive as transparency stimulates communication, makes employees feel connected and shows that failure or not achieving targets is part of pursuing success.

FAST goals: A better foundation for goal realization

As mentioned before, you can add guidelines and context to a SMART goals framework that would allow you to include elements such as Frequently discussed, Ambitious and Transparency. The power of FAST goals however is that this is already embedded in the concept without skipping essential elements of the SMART goals concept. The item Time-bound is not mentioned in the FAST goals concept but that’s OK because goal setting usually takes place with reference to a certain time period anyhow. This makes an explicit requirement of an end-date redundant.

FAST goals fit in nicely with the demands of the current times, such as the need for speed and agility, experimentation and learning, collaboration and interaction, and psychological safety. The most suitable way of including ambition, transparency and frequency of discussion into the goal setting framework of an organization, and how to include them in work-routine, will differ among organizations. But working with FAST goals requires one to explicitly think about these aspects and to make explicit decisions. This ensures that these essential elements of strategy execution and goal realization will not be overlooked.

Want to know more?

If you would like to exchange ideas or if you want a fresh view on the current goal realization setting in your organization, feel free to contact me.

Pieter van Oijen
pieter@workanize.nl

*Sull & Sull, With Goals, FAST Beats SMART, Sloan Management Review 2018.

Photo by Mauro Gigli on Unsplash