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How to Be Smarter About Your SMART Goals

Apply goal-setting skills to creativity to induce innovation.

Photo by IN BOSSMODE on Unsplash
Source: Photo by IN BOSSMODE on Unsplash

If you’ve heard any consultant talk about goal-setting techniques, you’ve heard about the SMART goal framework, but the framework has its limitations.

In 1981, George T. Doran, a consultant and former Director of Corporate Planning for Washington Water Power Company published a paper titled "There's a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management's Goals and Objectives", where he specified that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-related. (Doran, 1981)

Certainly SMART criteria encourage people to concisely state an action plan and a specific solution to implement them, which can allow for increase in goal fulfillment. Yet, when employed in isolation of other factors, SMART criteria can prove detrimental to innovation.

Specifically, SMART can limit the scope for freedom, risk-taking, and creativity. At the very least, it can be said that SMART criteria serve to slow innovative moves, rather than encourage them:

Incremental innovations improve the existing system by small steps, and finding incremental cost reductions is one example. Breakthrough innovations fundamentally change the system of products, services or the basic business model itself. (Prather, 2005)

Maybe there’s a smarter way to go about goal-setting for innovation and creativity to happen effectively for you as an individual or within your organization.

Creativity and innovation require a different set of qualities in order to to flourish. These qualities include freedom, challenge and involvement, trust and openness, risk-taking, idea time, and idea support.

SMART goal-setting + innovation = fulfilled growth and success.

Case Study: Innovation in Japan Energy Efficiency

Japan, the world’s second largest economy, has no domestic supply of fossil fuels. Rising prices of oil in the 1970’s motivated the government of Japan to create new rules about how energy should be used.

The government specified that manufacturers had to be 1% more energy efficient every year, and that any new product they created had to be at least as efficient as the most efficient product in the market. In turn, this started a culture of innovation when it comes to energy efficiency in Japan.

So when the nuclear power plant at Fukushima was damaged in 2011, the Japanese public started a movement known as Setsuden - or energy sustainable living, which included lowering the temperature of houses, slowing trains, and changing work schedules. The result? Energy usage during peak hours fell around 20%.

What does energy efficiency in Japan have to do with goal setting and innovation for entrepreneurs, business professionals, and creatives?

  • Real, radical innovation happens when we are forced to turn away from the established norms and think into new ways of being.
  • Setting clear, distinct goals helps communicate the kinds of innovation necessary. Sustained, continuous goals demonstrate the need for innovation over time.
  • Realizing a goal often requires the input of more than one person - instead there needs to be inspiration, instigation, and accountability.

SMART goal-setting is about making incremental, sustainable changes in how things are done that can lead to improved efficiency, performance, and profitability.

Innovation involves new ideas or processes, better solutions to meeting customer needs, or achieving a goal in a new way.

Combined they are key to providing businesses with a competitive edge.

And the key to making the most of innovative goal setting? Writing it down.

According to a study done by Gail Matthews at Dominican University, those who wrote down their goals accomplished significantly more than those who did not write down their goals. With that in mind, there are three fundamental ways you can integrate your goal setting in order to increase your creativity and accomplish more.

1. Ask Radical Questions

Just like in Japan, a vital step to ensuring that we are being agile and innovative is to force ourselves away from the established or familiar. Instead of jumping immediatley into safe, analytical goal setting using tried and tested ways of viewing the problems, what if first you interrogated your methods and asked what new ways there might be to solve the problem?

  • Goal questions allow you to answer what you will attain.
  • Process questions help you predict and map out how you will meet certain challenges, gain skills, or execute your goals creatively.

The best questions to write into a vision begin with stems such as, “What if…?” And “Why not…?

At Tracking Wonder, we use a 7-part Vision-Tracking Method that begins with these types of questions.

2. Interrogate for Meaning & Self-Concordance

In order for us to feel a goal is meaningful often requires a certain kind of process in articulating that goal. For something to be meaningful, we need other elements in place in performing the activity. We need vision. Deep intention. We need the goal to feel assimilated and coherent with the rest of our work – past, present, future. We need the right kinds of questions that will provoke us out of conventional thinking.

We also need self-concordance. Self-concordance is the feeling you get when the task you are working on helps you to achieve your other projects, interests and dreams. Unlike other theories in psychology, with self-concordance it doesn’t matter whether or not it is fun or if you choose to do it. Instead, as long as the task relates to your longer-term goals, it will motivate you to perform.

Dr Elisa Adriasola compares this correlation to changing her baby’s nappies: while it is neither fun, nor something that she would choose to do, it connects to her identity as a mother so it’s self-concordant.

Examine your goals, and make sure that they have the right range of vision, intention, and self-concordance. Ask yourself: Does this make sense for you and your business identity?

3. Employ an Open Goal Process

An Open Goal Process has two components:

1) Inspiration and instigation from mentors, and,

2) additional resources, encouragement, and support from peers.

Just like with Setsuden, sharing goals publicly allows for ideas to be sourced from the community at large. Large-scale business often open up their processes in order to get insight and information from their customers.

The same act of openness can help a business leader, creative entrepreneur, or thought leader. The act of Doing-It-Together increases the possibility that you may be exposed to new ideas, new strategies, and to share your successes large and small.

By sharing your goals with accountability groups, masterminds, mentors, or other circles, you can enjoy the inspiration and the accountability to help you not simply set goals but actually reach your goals and feel fulfilled along the way.


Adriasola, M. E. (2014) Motivation for multiple goals at work: The role of goal hierarchy self-concordance. Doctor of Philosophy. UWA Business School. University of Western Australia

Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives. Management Review, 70, 35-36.

Prather, C. W. (2005) The Dumb Thing About Smart Goals for Innovation, Research-Technology Management, 48:5, 14-15, DOI: 10.1080/08956308.2005.11657331

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