Maybe SMART goals really aren’t

Note: I’m going to get (briefly) a little ‘churchy’ here.

I was on a church committee once where there was a lot of frustration with the pastor, who had submitted a budget request that many church members felt was significantly beyond the church’s fiscal capacity. Several committee members expressed some iteration of the “it’s just not realistic” or “we have to live within our means” arguments, especially upset that she had recommended a huge increase in our local and international mission giving.

She listened and then said, “Ours is not a God confined to the realm of the feasible.”

I’ve always wanted to be able to command silence like that.

Back in the secular world, we have this same problem, right? A continual battle between what we think we can really do (truth be told: what we think we can really do without too much trouble) and what we know must be done.

We have this in our own practice, when we downgrade client goals a bit because what they aspire to just “doesn’t seem that likely.” We have it in our organizations, where we laboriously craft strategic plans that are all based on whether our goals are really measurable and attainable, even when what we know we need is a messy and improbable revolution.

And we forget.

We forget that we’ll never reach what we’re not reaching for.

We forget that we’re likely capable of things far larger than what our constrained (and strained) minds can imagine today.

We forget that we need aspiration for our motivation, and that no one ever changed the world without trying really, really hard.

Maybe those SMART goals that strategic planners like so much have their place. When everyone agrees on what the end game should be, and it’s something that’s a rather technical fix, instead of a struggle of ideas and ideals, then making sure that we all know who’s doing what, and when, and how we’re going to check that it’s done is a good thing.

But when what we really need is far from attainable at this moment, then what we need are goals that speak to people’s hearts, not their cautious minds. We need outlandish, wild, terrifically powerful goals that create vivid pictures in people’s minds about the world as it should be…because those are the kinds of goals that people will sacrifice and risk for.

We need goals that are intentionally unreasonable: end poverty, eradicate racism, cure cancer, prevent child abuse. It’s not about willfully disregarding the context in which these struggles will take place. We still need to know what we’re up against. It’s about building a vision that, while unrealistic, presents a compelling alternative around which people can rally.

Because reality is part of the problem.

So refusing to play by reality’s rules may not be SMART.

But it’s smart.

Because today’s dream is tomorrow’s fight is the next day’s victory.

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