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DUMB: A Model for “Unobtanium” – Are You Writing Smart or Dumb Goals?

By Therese Lenk, Senior Consultant, The Piras Group

Goal management ensures that people are focused on what matters most.  We know that with well-written goals, everyone understands where you are going and what’s important to achieve, in order to get “there.”  A clearly written goal also helps to:

  • Prioritize the most important work
  • Create accountability for achievement and
  • Allocates resources where they are most needed.

But sometimes goals are DUMB.

DUMB Goals Chart

(Download a larger version of the DUMB Goals graphic.)

They are DUMB, either because we are writing them poorly or the expectations set around them leave no leeway to “pivot” as things change.


Let’s take a look at the familiar format for writing what we call, “SMART goals.”  We say that SMART goals are: Specific, Measurable, Attainable-Achievable-Agreed-upon, Results-Focused-Relevant, and Time Bound.  To break it down:

  • Specific – Clear and concise and serves as a guide to action.  The outcomes and requirements are clear.
  • Measurable – Quantifiable and answers the question: “what are the measures of success?” Defined in terms of results and not activity; can be qualitative or quantitative.
  • Attainable/Achievable/Agreed-Upon – Achievable given time and resources.  You have discussed the feasibility with your stakeholders about what is needed for coordinated action and that is agreed upon.
  • Results-focused/Relevant – Integrated with ongoing responsibilities; aligned with company’s strategy and goals
  • Time-bound – Trackable to the future, results can be monitored via milestones.  In other words, are we on track with what we said matters most?

Indeed, writing with such clarity is needed for all of us to understand what needs to be done to get “there”: to that which matters most.

DUMB Goals

However, I often see DUMB goals in organizations.  DUMB goals are written more as activities or tasks, rather than written to understand what the person is committing to achieve. And this includes the why: the why is written within the context of the strategy to be achieved.  I say goals are DUMB when they are:

  • Diffuse and vague with no “there” there.
  • Uninspiring and under-deliver: being more activity-based vs. results-based.
  • Missing metrics: incalculable or not achievable given available resources or level of coordination required.
  • Blind-sighted: they are not aligned with strategy and what’s most important; they do not account for others who need to be involved, hours/level of effort required by others in the coordination, and alignment of work. Especially in matrixed and global organizations!

In other words: DUMB goals are a model for Unobtainium.  They are unobtainable.

And, conversely, they can also be DUMB because they are not flexible.  SMART must also mean that we have empowered our employees to “pivot,” meaning to “turn on a dime” when things change. To hold the course yet to also anticipate that things will and do change. Do plans change? Yes, ALL THE TIME, especially in this highly-dynamic world where flexibility, collective judgment, risk-taking, and creativity may be required to achieve what matters most. 

So, SMART also means not allowing your well-written goals to become overly constraining when things change; in other words, the ability to punt our well-written goals is also SMART. 

The Ultimate Goal

At the end of the day, our most important SMART goal is to help the organization and the people we work with achieve what matters most, right now.

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