An Alternative to SMART Goals

I had a colleague refer me to a worthwhile article regarding an alternative to SMART goals. The author, David Creelman, offers a new acronym for our consideration, WISE: Wide-Spanning, Insightful goals that are Sensitive to the ever-changing Environment. While there are certainly plenty of situations that benefit from SMART Goals and their ability to help us stay focused on measurable, timebound objectives and activities, Creelman recognizes that there are many occasions in which our journey is sufficiently vague that such constraints are at odds with our needs, metrics, and ultimate evaluation of outcomes.

This is especially true in any activities in which we are leading Emergence.  We must be nimble, open to the ever-likely possibility that we will have to make significant adjustments based upon what we are learning along the way. Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze first wrote about this several years ago, and since that time numerous authors have incorporated such thinking into leadership literature (most notably Boone and Snowden in Harvard Business Review): In order to gauge the true impacts and results of our efforts, we require WISE goals that are capable of integrating learning about the unknown and understanding that some of the most powerful consequences of our actions may have been thoroughly unanticipated.

In practical terms, this requires us to set aside the proffered wisdom of “Backwards Design,” where we presume to understand learning outcomes (for example) before offering a given course. Yes, it’s nice to anticipate likely results or even desired results, but we might instead engage in a process like “Design Thinking,” where we empathically co-create the course (or course of action, in a project design) with those most likely to be effected by the results and other stakeholders. In IT, this shift is akin to the shift from “Waterfall” to “Agile” thinking and design.

In a problem-solving process, this also suggests that such innovative thinking and goal-setting aligns with increased prototyping, through which ideas generated by an iterative, divergent process may be collected, combined, and then tested before proceeding further. We may find that our initial criteria are spot on, but we may also find that new criteria are emerging that are more powerful for assessing the actual results. We may also find we have combinations to try that hadn’t previously occurred to us, leading to still more ideation before convergence and decision points.

In these and other examples, there may be benefits to leaders to follow a WISE path, rather than a SMART one… thanks to David Creelman for his article, and to Sarah Carroll for pointing it out to me.

– Harry


Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

I am a facilitator, mediator, educator, and consultant specializing in addressing complex challenges and disputes within organizations. I bring over 40 years experience to this work and offer two recent books, What Matters at Work (2020) and What Matters in This Moment (2021) to these efforts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: