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Setting Goals for 2023: FAST vs. SMART Methodologies

By Kristin Barrett - Collective Academy
COO and Director of Enterprise Learning


By Kristin Barrett | COO and Director of Enterprise Learning - Thu, 02/09/2023 - 11:00

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The first quarter of the year is always critical for taking stock, setting goals, and planning the year. We often work with our clients during this time to review these goals, and our biggest challenge is to ensure those plans aren’t just filed away, but rather, are constantly revisited. As individuals, we set our goals and intentions for the year: we start out strong, with our motivation leading every step of the way, but at some point, motivation wears off and old habits take over, so we don’t actually end up following through with what we set up to do. We’ve come to learn that organizations are the same: they set goals for the year ahead, but as time goes by, the path may start to fall out of focus. 

As we kept finding this same pattern with our clients, we discovered a common link: it’s not just about the motivation throughout the year, but rather the way their goals were established and the framework behind them. We know our clients don’t want to follow a simple step-by-step guide to keep things running smoothly, they are seeking to grow and become better at what they do.

Almost all companies today use SMART goals, but the best companies take one step further and use FAST goals. What’s the difference? SMART goals are great for operational excellence, but FAST goals are necessary to create sustained change. Here’s the key:

In order to make a goal SMART, it must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. This system has worked for companies and managers all over the world, because it ensures that operations can run smoothly according to the company’s expectations. However, this opens the door to a more conservative goal setting that ensures that all objectives are achieved by playing it safe. In this sense, all employees might achieve their individual goals, but the organization as a whole could end up falling short and fail to execute its strategy. 

Since the SMART system tends to favor the individual over the collective, many companies have started to try a new approach, in which effective communication is critical for success: the FAST goal-setting system. 

FAST stands for Frequently Discussed, Ambitious, Specific and Transparent, and its outline first appeared in an article by Donald Sull and Charles Sull in MIT Sloan Management Review titled With Goals, FAST Beats SMART. The FAST framework not only helps support what the SMART system lacks, but it also involves everyone, leaving behind the individuality aspect of goal setting for a team or company. It covers a wider range of different aspects within a company and helps the organization tackle them all at the same time. 

It’s been shown time and time again that not only people, but also organizations, need to be able to adapt to change. People often feel that when a goal is set, it is written in stone and can’t be changed until it is achieved, but in order to meet the demands of this modern world, we need a more practical and solution-oriented approach. For example, the FAST’s “frequently discussed” enables teams to engage in ongoing discussions to review progress, identify if changes need to be made, restructure when needed, evaluate priorities and their relevance in each stage, and, best of all, provide as much feedback as possible. 

How can you make this actionable?

  1. Include a review of individual goals on the agenda for the last meeting of each month with your direct reports. Ask them to prepare a brief summary of how they did: biggest successes and challenges. Ask what might change in the next month. This could include changing the goal, but most of the time we see emphasis on sharpening focus.

  2. Include the team-level goal review in the senior management meeting in the first week of the month. Ask all leaders to compile results based on their 1:1 meetings in the last week of the previous month and fill out a template that summarizes progress. 

  3. Make it public. Share these reports at a company level. Let the company know if a team’s goals change and have the employees tell their teams if their individual goals are shifting. 

How to get started with FAST?

  1. Just like building a habit, it’s going to take practice, so make sure you start to set small actions you can do frequently to make sure you’re moving forward. Keeping track of how much you’ve discussed a goal, and when was the last time you did it with other members from your team can be a great way to start.

  2. Make sure that everyone is on the same page regarding this new framework, and be open about how you want this new approach to play a big role in your team’s growth. When everyone knows the course of action, the path to take becomes clear. 

  3. Understand that progress will not be linear. You’ll need to make adjustments and go back to square one more often than you’d like, but you’ll have your team building the new map alongside you, with insights and knowledge that will be very useful.

Just as keeping the sails hoisted is a team effort, running and working in a company requires a lot of teamwork. It can be challenging to have to keep going back and forth when reviewing and setting goals, especially if it’s not the way the company has been operating. It’s very tempting to want to set a goal at the beginning and not have to look back until it’s been achieved. However, that eliminates a key aspect of progress, which is discovering new and better ways to get to the finish line. 

Photo by:   Kristin Barrett

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