Fate had it that our company’s Innovation Lab was seeking new submissions at the same time we were to submit our annual S.M.A.R.T. goals for our departments and each employee. For anyone who has been working at least 10 years, no doubt you have heard of this goal-related acronym: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.

There are a few different variations on this, but all-in-all, the result is the same.

In 1954, Peter Drucker introduced the world to the concept of management by objectives with his book The Practice of Management. In the November 1981 issue of Management Review, George T. Doran introduced us to S.M.A.R.T. goals to motivate and help employees achieve their objectives.

S.M.A.R.T. goals are the ideal tool for functional managers to help them monitor their direct reports. Those goals become a good base for discussion during performance review time. They have been around for more than 30 years, and their effectiveness is proven.

But do S.M.A.R.T. objectives help an organisation drive innovation or generate new ideas?

Let’s look at the real needs of traditional media organisations today. Real, heart-stopping innovation is not “measured” nor is it “realistic” and certainly, for most folks, it’s not within the realm of “achievable” either! Lateral thinking requires a different mindset.

From S.M.A.R.T. to D.U.M.B. to H.A.R.D. goals

I have a love/hate relationship with mnemonics: They provide an easy, often memorable way of expressing a set of ideas, yet they often hide the complexity of the real world. Like we can simplify real company issues to four or five letters!

Warning: You might be sick of mnemonics by the end of this piece. Here we go with two more.

Some advocate that to truly see (get/seek) innovative ideas from people, we should espouse the D.U.M.B. technique: Dangerously Unattainable, Monstrously Big goals.

Or what about this technique that is supposed to get the staff going and truly committed? The H.A.R.D. goals have been statistically validated by regression models that say they should be Heartfelt, Animated, Required, and Difficult (Hundred Percenters, 2010).

Honestly? I am all for science and statistical modeling, but to constantly boil down complex issues to a few letters is rather unnerving. It seems that these kinds of research and their conclusions are more geared toward book selling and speaker engagements than truly helping organisations make real breakthroughs.

How about we set aside the research and mnemonics for a moment and look at how innovative companies actually set employee goals, if at all.

Google’s use of OKRs for its employees

If we are to look for innovation, than we better look at how Google measures and quantifies what it’s working on. Since pretty much its inception, Google has made use of the Objective and Key Results (OKRs) system.

OKR are organised in the following manner:

The Objective (O):

  • Is ambitious.

  • Is a tad uncomfortable.

The Key Results (KR):

  • Clearly make the objective achievable.

  • Are quantifiable.

  • Lead to objective grading.

The objective is set first. Then the key results should be definitive, measurable, quantifiable, and able to help you reach your objective. You then assess each KR with a 0-1 metric. The goal is to be between 0.6 and 0.7.

Interestingly, Google does not use OKRs for employee promotions, but rather they help each employee keep track of what they are working on.

Here’s an example:

Pretty easy and straight forward so far. Not exactly earth shattering.

So let’s leave employee-specific goals now and look at the more interesting and much more promising team goals. When seeking innovation, organisations often assemble one or a few teams to work on innovation projects. As such, goal setting for teams can be much more ambitious and bold.

Pixar’s recipe to make impossible goals work

In his book Creativity, Inc., Pixar CEO Ed Catmull says that impossible goals should seem unattainable, but they shouldn’t be set so high that your team is guaranteed to fail.

Four ways to make those “impossible” goals effective:

  1. Double all existing targets.

  2. Ask team leads to share their ambitious goals.

  3. Don’t tie success to bonuses.

  4. Be prepared for failure.

But wait a minute, you say. How does one figure out where the line is between a project that will fail versus a project that should make it when the goals are impossible and feel unattainable? Impossible goals will only discourage employees and you risk losing engagement altogether.

That’s where you need to make the distinction: Not everyone gets discouraged. Rock-star employees will thrive. In other words, the argument goes, “impossible goals” might be simply more suited for a sub-set of your company – not all of it.

Setting impossible goals à la Apple

Steve Jobs’ time at Apple has sparked one legend after another about his incessant push and demand for innovation.

It is reported that when Jobs asked to make the iPod smaller, Apple’s engineers told him they already “had to re-invent inventing” and that it was impossible to make it smaller. Mr. Jobs walked to the nearby aquarium and dumped the iPod in it. Bubbles started to rise to the top. “Those are air bubbles,” he snapped. “That means there’s space in there. Make it smaller.”

One clear issue is that on one hand we set up “attainable goals” at the employee level, which, by definition, are bound by reality. On the other hand, we set up teams that are tasked with big, ambitious, and seemingly impossible goals.

If we are to become more nimble, courageous, and truly innovative organisations, we’ll have to re-think goal-setting altogether. Impossible?