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


Integrated Dispute Settlement Systems: Addressing Conflicts Constructively

Question: How do we, as leaders, help our organizations address conflicts constructively? 

Answer: Map out and understand our ways of handling conflicts, also known as our “dispute settlement systems.” Fill in gaps. Build capacity. Reinforce what works in order to focus upon What Matters at Work. 

Conflicts and complaints naturally arise within most organizations. We tend to respond, however, by either channeling such issues to formal grievance processes or by ignoring them as much as possible until they are too big to manage effectively. Our organizations require an infrastructure for addressing conflict that contains, channels and synthesizes resources effectively. As a result, true integration of dispute settlement processes and systems will develop holistic, adaptive responses and longer-term solutions to such disputes. These structures are essential (both formal and non-formal) vehicles for bringing forth new ideas, managing conflicts that naturally arise and to serve as incubators of experimentation and reform. In turn, they become accessible tools for questioning the new status quo and continuing to hold all members of the community accountable to its Core Values. Three types of practices are suggested to facilitate the development and sustainability of these systems:

Informal Systems: All organizations have those “go to” people that everybody relies upon to listen well, offer solid advice, and otherwise be a presence in solving problems and settling disputes. This practice builds upon this naturally occurring phenomenon: Survey staff to identify overall perspectives on conflicts in the workplace and how empowered they feel they are to address them. Such a survey can be connected to a broader climate survey or employee engagement effort, for it helps us understand training needs that we can act upon to address priority concerns. But let’s add one more question: “Please identify up to 5 people in the organization you believe are especially skilled as listeners and as people who help solve conflicts as they arise.” Once collected, use these results to invite members of this nominated group to a meeting in which they can be recognized and thanked for their natural contributions, and from which they can be asked to offer suggested ways we can improve the company’s ability to foster communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution efforts. Then be prepared to follow through on those suggestions that have resonance with organizational Core Values.

Non-formal Systems: This is a term that may be new to many readers… “Non-formal” systems refer to intentionally organized approaches that largely depend upon peer leadership and agenda-setting. They can be contrasted to the informal systems that simply arise and end naturally, or the formal systems that tend to be integrated with policy, governance, and top-down leadership. Non-formal practices include communities of practice and similar learning communities. In dispute resolution, they include peer facilitation and peer mediation projects. In these systems, a cross-section of staff across the organization is trained to mediate staff disputes, and is promoted as being available for such efforts. While the project can be connected to HR or other management processes, their reputation and success depends upon their abilities to be perceived as impartial sources of service, and that any negotiation among disputing parties is voluntary and self-determined. Peer facilitators can be available to mediate conflicts, facilitate complex problem solving sessions around difficult issues, or simply as peer listeners available to individuals who want to sort out concerns before engaging in other efforts to address them. These efforts can complement services offered through Employee Assistance or an Ombuds Office, as well.

Formal Systems: Grievance and appeals policies, as well as other channels for formally addressing concerns, are an essential element of organizational governance. Boards of Directors should establish standing committees in cooperation with leadership from both management and staff perspectives, so rights are understood and protected and needs are addressed in effective and relatively cost-efficient ways. All involved in hearing such concerns should be trained to do so, and there should be external resources that add another level of professional skill and review to such processes. This level of investment and review is basic and fundamental to the democratically managed organization. From such a vantage point, systematic understandings of the corporate culture can be acted upon; for example, if we find a particular division or service area more commonly has issues that escalate to formal grievance resolution, we can investigate the underlying contributing factors and see if there can be systemic solutions that can prevent such conflicts from developing into formal grievances.

At a more detailed level, some organizations have created numerous “governance circles” that follow the rules of Holacracy or Sociocracy. The largest company taking this approach is Zappos, where it is now embedded in the corporate culture. Other examples are described by Frederic Laloux in his important book, Reinventing Organizations (2014).

Exercise: Create a map of your company’s various places and spaces where disputes are addressed. How do they relate to one another? Is it clear to staff and customers what these various approaches to conflict are, and how they are accessed? You may want to create an informal meeting with colleagues in order to construct this picture. Have fun and be creative in your map-making abilities. Then, create a “key” that helps tell the story of your various informal, formal, and non-formal dispute settlement systems.

Recall the initial question and answer at the start of this article:

Question: How do we, as leaders, help our organizations address conflicts constructively?

Answer: Map out and understand our ways of handling conflicts, also known as our “dispute settlement systems.” Fill in gaps. Build capacity. Reinforce what works in order to focus upon What Matters at Work.

How are you doing with this leadership challenge?

The Coat of Arms: Representing Our Core Values


For centuries, families, governments, and companies and have represented their essential qualities and values through a Coat of Arms. While rooted in feudal military history, this tool has been readily adapted to illustrate to the world those things that matter, how we wish to be known, and a legacy to further generations of our family. Combined with a Motto, we capture our values artistically and elegantly.

Exercise: What are your Core Values? To what degree do they consciously guide your Intentions? Take a few minutes to reflect on these questions. Then briefly illustrate your responses, using the Coat of Arms worksheet provided (or making a copy to complete separately). Once completed, return to the last exercise and your emerging Core Story… is there now more that you can say about it?


In each box, represent a value that matters to you in your life and work. It may be a picture, phrase, or other artistic representation. At the bottom, insert a simple Motto that captures the essence of the values that guide you.

I’ve used the Coat of Arms activity in a number of contexts over the years, whether as a concluding course exercise to reflect upon what has been learned or an opportunity to consider our priorities as we embark upon a longer project, just as we are doing here. It always sparks good conversation and often informs participants in ways that are uniquely accessed by its more artistic aspects. From a coaching/mentoring perspective, the Coat of Arms allows a pair to clarify What Matters at Work in some more personally revealing ways that may otherwise be difficult to express together.


The Core Story: Connecting to Your “Why”

The Core Story: Connecting to Your “Why”

For all time, people have been looking heavenward and asking, “Who am I? Who are we? Why are we here? What is my role in that story?” This is the Core Story, the ever-present narrative that runs throughout our lives. The CS is most prominent at times of transition: in childhood, as we transition to adolescence, and again as we fall in love, mate and marry. It is on our minds as we consider our careers, as well, if we are fortunate enough to contemplate the distinctions between jobs and work, between obligations to survive and opportunities to thrive. Such spiritual reflections also return at various pauses in the road, as we consider job changes or new career choices, or moving to new communities and the impacts on ur families and relationships. And, of course, the CS is present as we age and contemplate the ends of our lives, now asking those same questions from the perspective of experience and, hopefully, some wisdom.

In his excellent books and talks on the topic, Simon Sinek asserts that our Core Stories need to “Start With Why,” (TEDx, 2006, and subsequent book, 2009) rather than our usual patterns that start with What we do and How we do it. “Why” is at the core of our purpose, the way we reveal the vast meaning of our Intention in the world. For some of us, the CS is huge in scale and ambition, like seeking to eradicate poverty. But for most of us, it revolves around our more immediate circles of influence, such as our family and community. In a workplace context, the CS arouses our passions to produce an outstanding product of great value to others, or to deliver a service that recipients regard highly and that our colleagues tremendously respect.

Exercise: What do you currently understand to be your Core Story? One way to access this information is to consider WHY you are living your life… your deeper sense of Purpose, then WHAT you have done or planned to do in order to fulfill this purpose, and then HOW you try to engage in activities that support what you do and why you do it. Find a space where you can take time to reflect, journal, paint, or otherwise clarify your CS as it now expresses itself. We are all “works in progress,” so please try not to expect perfection… this is a first draft.

Then: Discuss your responses with a trusted friend or colleague. (Indeed, you may both do this exercise and share your stories with one another).

Then: Reflect more fully on the connection of your activities to your purposeful work (from a previous Exercise) and your own evolving Core Story… what does it tell you? What might be meaningful to incorporate into your day, or at least into some aspects of your week?

Intention: Preparing to Notice What Matters

How do we best engage in What Matters? It all starts with Intention, that clarity of purpose to notice those things that matter and then act in a way that is consistent with what is important. Intention is course-setting, the compass that helps us navigate our ways through the challenges and complexities of our days, weeks, years, lives. Intention connects us with the core motivators of life, to offer a great contribution in service to the universe, to leave the world better than we entered, to be loving and caring friends, partners, parents, and citizens.

Taking the time to set intentions sounds simple enough, yet we tend to jump into the work day with little such thought. Instead, we usually react and respond to those immediate urgencies that call out to us from our Inbox, To-Do List, appointment calendars… we get caught in the weeds of trivial detail, and next thing we know it is well through the day. So, instead of just jumping into the day, take a few moments to set your Intention for the day. This ritual needn’t be complicated or time-consuming. It is a simple process of sitting still, breathing deeply, and noticing those things that matter to you on this day…how you wish to Be, rather than what you wish to do. This mindful process is the first step.

Exercise 1: Be seated comfortably, whether in your home or at your office. Close your eyes and breathe deeply several times. In your own words (silently or aloud), welcome the day. With each breath, notice an Intention that wants to emerge, such as to be patient, supportive, tolerant of others’ ideas, a good listener today. After a minute, restate those 2-3-4 Intentions that you will seek to fulfill on this day, reminded with each deep breath you notice throughout the day.

As I reflect on what I’ve just asked you to do, I realize how foreign it may be to do it. Many of us simply put one step in front of the other, with little time to reflect upon where we are going or why we are going there… it is simply “the ways things are” and the way they need to be… To set an Intention for the day is to pause that process, not to abandon it. It is critically necessary in order to be sure that we are actually heading in the right direction. As a practical matter, it keeps us from wasting our time and being productive. As a spiritual matter, it grounds us and fills our souls with the energy required to breathe, keep breathing, and being fully alive. So give it a try, notice how it feels, and then try it repeatedly each day for a week. I expect you will notice some things that I can’t begin to convey on these pages.