An open goal

An open goal - that's surely better than a closed one?

Following on from Jim Bright’s post about applying the Chaos Theory of Careers to work with clients, I wanted to pick up on the thought that goal-setting is not always the right thing to do.

Being of more ‘spontaneous and unstructured’ nature, I find it quite oppressive when coaches and trainers bang on about the need to set SMART objectives. You all know the acronym:

  • Specific (or is it Significant? Simple?)
  • Measurable (or perhaps Manageable? Motivational?)
  • Attainable (or is it Achievable? Acceptable? Appropriate? Agreed? Ambitious?)
  • Relevant (or is it Realistic? Resourced?)
  • Time-limited (maybe Timely?)

All this hyper-focused-ness makes me want to scream sometimes.

These conditions seem to assume that nothing is going to change; that the goal is somehow separate from the context in which it has been defined. They assume that life is not complex, that you can plot a course and just follow it.

But life isn’t like that. It’s messy. Things change. Unexpected things happen.

Perhaps it’s time for a different type of SMART objective.

Here is my first attempt at redefining SMART for the complexity of real life, for the world of chaos.

My SMART stands for:

  • Situational — Recognising that goals are always formed within a particular context, under particular conditions. Recognising that those conditions are likely to change and that might change the nature of the goal, maybe even invalidate it altogether.
  • Multi-faceted — Having only one possible acceptable outcome and one way of achieving it makes it more likely that you will fail in chaotic conditions. Maintaining alternative possible goals and having alternative methods increases your chances of success. If you can make choices you can make progress.
  • Adaptable — Situations change and so will you, especially as you pursue your goals. As you formulate your goals, think about how they might change over time. Make sure you can tell the difference between the elements of your objectives that are fixed and those which can be changed.
  • Risk-taking — In changeable circumstances there is no certainty and no playing safe. There are always going to be risks. You can try to anticipate them, but you won’t be able to predict them all. Knowing that you are taking risks whatever you do, can enable you to choose more ambitious goals.
  • Transformational — Pursuing any goal involves making a journey. Along that journey you will encounter new experiences, meet new people. You will discover new things about yourself and about the world. The more ambitious your goals, the more you are likely to change.  Don’t just think about what you would like to achieve through your goals. Think about who you would like to be — but be prepared for surprises.

OK, that’s my attempt. I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s a starting point. I’m sure you could do better. Please send me your ideas.


  1. #1 by todd I. Stark on 27 September 2010 - 16:55

    The framing of the problem in order to set the goal at the right level is perhaps the most critical activity in problem solving, and becomes increasingly challenging with problem complexity. The goal is pretty much given in a formal worked problem, and choosing the right goal is often a significant majority of the process with a very complex open-ended problem. Once you have that, the rest is engineering. The selection and definition (and usually redefinition) of the goal it certainly (in my opinion) should not be dictated by mnemonics or cute heuristics.

    If there are clearly identifiable differences between people who do it well and those who don’t in problems of low to moderate complexity, it comes down to domain expertise (because that provides recognition of the common pattern from similar problems), and the right kind of intelligence to grasp the complexities of the problem.

    When the problem is so complex that expertise and intelligence are inadequate, then experience with iterative problem solving itself becomes a key factor because that’s how we learn different ways for reframing situations and to recognize when different kinds of goals or a further breakdown of goals (or taking a step back to larger ones) is needed. This is the realm of problems where our solutions tend to have unanticipated consequences and where we can’t neccessarily take in the entire situation in one succinct description, so we need to establish a loop of some kind to make changes and test the results of our changes rather than just to model the outcome. At least that’s one of the lessons I’ve taken away from my experience with complex problems. We need to recognize when they cross that complexity boundary, and what that means with regard to the limits of our usual models.

    Sometimes there are different models that are better adapted to very complex situations, but they require their own skill sets and tools, they are not just a matter of changing the properties of the goals or similar approaches.

    • #2 by David Winter on 27 September 2010 - 17:19

      Hi Todd

      Thanks for the comments. I fully agree that mnemonics and cute heuristics are not the ideal way to address complex issues. Unfortunately, people are going to use them whether we like it or not.

      I suppose I wanted to at least make people think about it in a slightly less formulaic and more imaginative way.

      So, come on! Play the game!

      I’m going to cheekily reduce your erudite argument to a cute heuristic.

      Is your goal CUTE:

      Categorised – Is it simple, domain specific or domain transcending?
      Understood – Am I looking at the problem from an appropriate frame of reference?
      Testable – Can we monitor the effect of our actions as we go along?
      Elastic – Can the goal be reduced or widened as appropriate.

      Sorry 😉

      • #3 by Todd I. Stark on 27 September 2010 - 18:06

        No need for apologies, you offer an intriguing challenge. I’m not quick enough or focused enough right now to answer it off hand, I’ll have to think about it. I do think you have a good point, mnemonics can be very helpful if they are of the right sort for the problem at hand.

        I usually work from checklists of key questions. For very complex problems, I take at least one swipe at the level where I try to figure out what domain(s) the problem is in so I can identify the right class of methods and experts.

        Some critical questions for very complex problems:

        What domains does this problem overlap?

        Are there experts for each of these domains, or are any of them structured such that general experience is more likely to be misleading than helpful in addressing the specifics?

        If it is amenable to expert solution. is there a consensus of approach in each of these domains, or do I need to look at multiple expert viewpoints and find a way to choose between them?

        Once I know what “fields” I’m dealing with, I know what sort of people I need to bring in or what literature I need to research to find potential applicable approaches for breaking down the problem into manageable parts. Or, conversely, I know what sorts of approaches that we might have jumped to would have had significant limitations, and why.

        That gives me a big advantage to start with. And it all begins with the simple point of recognizing that I’m only really expert in a very small number of things at most, and none of them may be directly useful for reframing the problem at hand. Failing a small variety of the right kinds of experts, I’ll look for a larger variety of good problem solvers with experience in as diverse domains as possible and apply reframing or redefinition methods more explicitly.

      • #4 by David Winter on 28 September 2010 - 09:40

        How about DEFT?


        I’ll send you an invoice!

  2. #5 by David Winter on 7 October 2010 - 13:30

    For a more detailed exploration of the danger of over-simplistic goal setting see this post from The Factory

  3. #6 by todd I. Stark on 7 October 2010 - 14:20

    Great information, and most of this goes well beyond the domain of career choice as well.

  4. #7 by E. on 10 October 2010 - 20:58

    This has been well thought out before. I like Mark Murphy’s ideas here.

    Hope you can benefit.


  5. #8 by todd I. Stark on 25 October 2010 - 20:49

    re: Mark Murphy:

    Please don’t take offense, but honestly as interesting and clever as this is, I also have a mild alarm bell going off in my head when I read this pamphlet. The spin is that LeadershipIQ is doing “research.” Is that actually the case that they have published research in a journal, or is this more a marketing pamphlet for Murphy’s book and their training services? That’s ok if it is, it’s not as if it makes a huge difference for most purposes, I’m not trying to be an a$$hole about it. I’m just curious how I should interpret what I’m reading since there are no actual citations for publications in this work and it talks about ‘validating’ the company’s ideas. If validation means successfully selling training services to other companies, I’ve been in that business too so I know it doesn’t mean the same thing as honest sweat at psychological research. Testimonials aren’t the same thing as testing theories.

  6. #9 by Robin Melina Kinsman on 2 June 2011 - 17:22

    Hi David,
    I am impressed that the comments on the famous Linkedin jim Bright Thread about careers and To Plan or Not To Plan have activated a creative vision here. I love the acronym and would like to translate into Spanish.

    S – Situacional
    M – Multifacético
    A – Adaptable
    AP – Aprende y Practica (Learns and Puts into Practice) (this is my cultural adaptation of risk-taker, since in Spanish you can´t compound words easily and risky has a negative take)
    T – Tranformacional

    SMAAPT. Hmm, not as nice but its a smart start.

    • #10 by David Winter on 2 June 2011 - 18:03

      Hi Robin

      Well, this post appeared before Jim started the mammoth discussion on LinkedIn, but I suspect Jim’s ideas on planning were formulated long before my cheeky riff on SMART.

      Wish I could help you more with the translation to Spanish.

      Alternative English words for the Risk-Taking element could be

      I don’t know if that will help.

      I quite like Aprende y Practica though. That’s got a nice ring to it.

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