6 03 2011
Seriously, do you really know what success looks like?

Most readers of this blog will have heard (and occasionally used) the acronym SMARTER to test out their goals, yet what never ceases to amaze me is how few companies, large and small, apply the same acronym to their idea of what success looks like.

For the benefit of those who have not encountered SMARTER before, here is what it means:


  • Have a specific goal rather than something vague like I want to be better.


  • Include a measure which will tell you whether you have achieved your goal or not.


  • You must agree to the goal if it is to belong to you. Don‘t let others impose their dreams on you.


  • There is little point in planning for failure. Ensure your goals are realistic.


  • Impose a date or a deadline for achieving your goal.


  • Whatever your goal is, if it doesn‘t excite you, it will not keep you motivated.


  • Record it and commit to it.

There are other, slightly different versions but they all pretty much say the same thing.

Now, back to what success looks like. Regular readers will know I like using sporting analogies, for this one I will use a male 800 metre runner.

What does success look like to this athlete?

“I aim to win an Olympic gold medal.”

No shortage of ambition but if you run that ambition through SMARTER you will see that the athlete has a dream; he does not know what success looks like.

Winning an Olympic gold medal is not specific. First and foremost there are too many factors outside the control of our athlete not least, how fast other athletes might be when the Olympics come around. To make this aspiration something he can commit too he needs to phrase it in terms of his ‘controllables’. In 800m terms, that means committing to a time which intelligent research suggests will be quick enough for gold.

The athlete also needs to add a deadline in order to turn his hope from dream into goal. In setting a target time and a deadline he adds specificity. Provided the time and time-frame are realistic, the athlete agrees and the idea still excites him (and continues to). We now know what success looks like:

“I aim to win an Olympic gold medal at 800m in 2016 which will require me to have the ability to run 1:42.”

Somewhere in the world an athlete might emerge who will run 1:40 (a world record) but that is outside our athlete’s control, he has defined success by things he can control and in doing so has turned a dream into a goal.

What does this mean in the corporate world? That all depends how much of the lesson you want to take on board. Is your company’s success built on little but an ill-defined dream or can you genuinely define success in the way our athlete could?

Ahh, I hear you say but the athlete might not win the Olympic gold even if he does run 1:42 in the final in 2016. And you’d be right. Knowing what success looks like doesn’t guarantee success, there are always too many elements outside our control. What it does is greatly increase the likelihood of success and, should we fall short we will still have improved from where we were.

And the tool for checking? We probably knew it all along; we just failed to apply it. Sometimes it is the simplest things which are easiest overlooked.

If we really want to define what success looks like, we must remember to be SMARTER!

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2011


Twitter @cowanglobal





One response

6 03 2011
Yvonne Parker

How true. Aren’t we all so busy being clever we sometimes overlook the most basic of lessons in our rush to get things done. Thanks Jim.

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