Setting goals or targets are important for improving performance. This is true as much of thought leadership as anything else. You need to know what you are trying to achieve with your thought leadership efforts because otherwise, you cannot see whether you have succeeded. 

Your thought leadership work should, therefore, be built around your targets or goals. What you write, create and share should all be designed to help you achieve your targets. Why, then, do so many people get distracted by the latest hype, or the newest viral content, and go ‘off-piste’? And how can you stop this happening to you?

The answer to this may not be that you just need to stop getting distracted. Instead, it may be that you need to change the way that you set and manage your goals.

Conventional wisdom is SMART

We all know the conventional wisdom about goals. They should be SMART, or specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. In other words, you should be able to achieve them within a specific time and be clear about when and whether you have done so. Over time, goals have become the way in which performance is assessed, with people expected to achieve all their goals as a condition of a performance bonus.

The problem with this approach is that people tend to under-aim. To make sure that they achieve their goals, they set ridiculously low targets, and then don’t try to stretch themselves beyond that, to make for easy targets the next year. Performance is mediocre, at best.

There is a lot of evidence that performance is significantly better in companies that set stretch targets, and expect employees to achieve only about 70 to 80% of those targets. These companies have moved from SMART to FAST—frequently discussed, ambitious, specific and transparent goals.

Unpicking FAST

It is worth unpicking FAST to understand precisely what is involved in each element, and why it is important.

First, goals should be frequently discussed. This doesn’t mean that they should be set more often, although some companies using a FAST approach have moved from annual goals to quarterly. The crucial aspect is that progress towards goals is discussed often, in monthly or even weekly sessions. This means that it is possible to ensure that resources are properly allocated and initiatives are prioritized to fit with company objectives. Employees are reminded of what is important at regular intervals, and any corrections can be made.

Second, goals should be ambitious. Unlike the SMART approach of ‘achievable’, FAST suggests that goals should actually be almost, but not quite, unachievable. People tend to achieve much more if they are challenged. They are forced to find new and innovative ways of working, both as individuals and in teams, and overall performance is higher.

Third, goals should be specific. Goals should be translated into concrete measures and milestones, against which progress can be assessed. This was also the ambition with SMART goals, but the process was often not followed. Companies using a FAST approach combine goals with metrics, also known as key performance indicators, key results, or measures. This forces people to think about how they can break their goals down into achievable steps, and also measure progress to the overall goal. This is particularly helpful for very ambitious goals because it makes them less daunting. It also makes it easier to see when something is not working and take action to correct it.

Finally, goals should be transparent. SMART goals were generally set between individuals and managers, driven by the individual. Most people never knew what other people in their team were expected to achieve, never mind other teams. A more transparent approach, where goals are made public across organizations, allows everyone to see what other individuals and teams are doing. This helps everyone to see the bigger picture. It also applies peer pressure to goal delivery, and enables people to benchmark and get tips from higher performers. 

Making goals work

Companies that have moved from SMART to FAST goals have found huge improvements in performance. Crucially, FAST goals lead to increased agility and flexibility, which are essential in responding to fast-moving external environmental conditions. They are therefore far more suitable for today’s world. 

Goals do work to drive improvements in performance—but they have to be the right goals. Moving your thought leadership goalposts from SMART to FAST could well be the way to ensure that you can focus on your goals, but still follow your interests. 


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