SMART Goals: Smart or Passé?

Published: May 09, 2019
Modified: Apr 09, 2024

By AMA Staff

Mark Murphy’s most recent book is HARD Goals: The Secret to Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. He is also the best-selling author of 100 Percenters and the founder and CEO of Leadership IQ, a provider of corporate leadership training. AMA spoke to Murphy about HARD goals for a recent Edge Wise podcast. (Listen to the podcast)

AMA: We are familiar with the term “SMART” goals. Now you’re writing about “HARD” goals. What’s the difference?
Mark Murphy: Smart goals were created in the 1950s. The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-limited.  What we found in our research was that there were parts of smart goals that were working, but there were other parts—in particular the achievable and realistic parts—that were really holding people back from achieving great success. As we started to study why so many people were abandoning their goals, why they got bored with them and stopped caring about them, we realized that there were some flaws in the SMART goals methodology. They were great when they were created, but 60 years later weren't working so well.

HARD goals stands for Heartfelt, Animated, Required and Difficult. We discovered that these are the four tests that a goal has to pass if somebody’s going to care about it, approach it with new energy every day, and to really push themselves to achieve it.

The heartfelt piece—the H—tells us that a goal has to have some emotional component. We have to be emotionally connected to our goals. If we don't feel it, if it doesn’t sort of stir some emotions inside of us, even if it’s a big, strategic business goal, we’re not likely to hold onto it for any great length of time.

The Animated piece basically says we have to visualize our goals. We have to be able to see them clearly. If a goal is fuzzy and not well thought out, we’re probably not going to achieve it.

The Required portion is the idea that we have to have some urgency. One of the great destroyers of goals is that even if we have a goal that we like, as soon as we start saying, “Yeah, I’ll do that next week,” or “I’ll start it tomorrow,” or “After the holidays,” we’re going to have a problem.

There is a great irony surrounding the D, or Difficult component. For years, people thought that if a goal was too hard, people weren't going to achieve it, that they’d give up. Yet what we found is that difficult goals actually improve performance. There’s a body of research that shows that as goals get more difficult, people’s brains awaken. They come alive. That’s when they really start to concentrate and pay attention, which is the real ballgame for achieving a goal.

AMA: How can we determine whether the goals we’re setting are appropriate?  How do we know where we’re wrong and right so we can adjust accordingly?
MM: We can put our individual goals through the HARD test. If we think back to our great achievements in life, where we got the big promotion, led the company through the merger, invented the new product, lost 20 pounds, or ran a marathon.  Whatever those goals were, we had an emotional connection to them. We could visualize them clearly. We felt this amazing sense of urgency, whether it was externally or internally opposed. And they were really difficult. They pushed us out of our comfort zone. We had to learn new skills.

Generally speaking, you’ll see that in every great achievement, our goals pass the four HARD tests. So if you use that a barometer to measure your current goals, you can say, “Well, if that major achievement met those criteria, how does my current goal stack up?” This is a very good, simple way to test if the goal we’re on right now is going to get us anywhere near to those previous great achievements.

AMA: When managers sit down with subordinates to decide on what the goals are going to be for the year, even during this tough recessionary period, I don't think executives take it too seriously. The assumption in the end is, “We’ll do the best we can.”
MM: One of the great ironies of this is that when CEOs go through their goal setting processes, a lot of them—at least the good ones—have goals that look a lot like HARD goals. They have urgency. When the board says, for example, “CEO, we’re going to achieve certain things this year,” there’s a sense of urgency. If the board is doing its job, those goals are going to be difficult. Generally the passion that it takes to become CEO allows them to have a heartfelt connection. They can visualize; they know where they’re going. But where this really breaks down is they turn to their employees, the people they need to help them achieve their HARD goals, and they go through a perfunctory SMART goal exercise. They sit down with some goofy little worksheet (which no CEO in history has filled out, by the way). Their managers view it as a perfunctory exercise and the employees roll their eyes and go, “This doesn’t mean anything to me. Why are we doing this again?”

Yet CEOs don't have to be alone in their goals.  If you have 10,000 employees, you could potentially have 10,000 other people helping you achieve this magnificent goal, if you would treat them as you treat yourself. If you would give them the same attention and thoughtfulness in their goals as you give to your goals, you’d have an army of people ready to go for you. But instead, while we contemplate and visualize the future, they get the goofy little kindergarten worksheet. We think that’s somehow going to engender great passion, and it just doesn’t.

AMA: Let’s say you apply the HARD goal approach to goal setting and you achieve your goals. What do your employees want when that occurs? Do they want a reward, or do they just want recognition that they contributed to the goal’s success?
MM: Certainly rewards can work. There is a lot of evidence that extrinsic motivators do work, but it’s not number one. If a goal is well designed, the feeling of accomplishment that comes from achieving it and celebrating it with others becomes very much its own reward. Extrinsic motivators can be recognition; they can be money.  However, the goal is often its own reward. Nobody who’s ever finished a marathon looks at the finisher’s medal and says, “Oh, yeah, that why I did it. That’s why I trained eight months and slogged through 26.2 miles.” It’s the feeling of knowing that you did it; that you conquered. 

What people have to watch out for, ironically, is after they achieve these hard goals, there is a tendency to say, “Okay, that’s done.” Goal setting is not a one time thing; it’s a process. It’s something we have to do constantly.  We should be constantly reenergizing and revisualizing and reconnecting emotionally to our goals, making sure that they’re always pushing us, and that we still feel that urgency. We should be doing this every day, so that when we have that big achievement, we are ready to move toward reaching another goal. That’s what keeps us going.

AMA: Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?
MM: Yes. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the quest for happiness. One of the things we’ve found is that true happiness is epiphenomenal—it is the result of having done something deep and meaningful, something like a HARD goal. There is school of thought that argues that happiness should be both the ends and the means. What we’ve found is that too often, people play only to their strengths. They only do the things they’re already good at. They take the easy road because that’s the fastest path to happiness.

Yet the things that fill you with pride are usually the toughest moments in our lives. They are the biggest, hardest, most uncomfortable, and scariest accomplishments. The “play to your strengths” mentality—if it’s too hard, don't do it—is exactly the opposite of the mentality that has given us our greatest achievements. When JFK stood up and said, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” that is very good science. Whether we’re putting a man on the moon, trying to double sales, trying to lose ten pounds, run a marathon, or spend more time with our kids—whatever the goal is, it’s the big ones, the difficult ones—that really leave us feeling happy. And that’s what HARD goals are ultimately all about.

About the Author(s)

AMA Staff American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.