Monday, December 31, 2012

Moving Away from Outcomes

I've recently subscribed to Tony Gurr's blog.  He champions many ideas that resonate powerfully with me and his blog is a tremendous source of ideas and inspiration! In a post yesterday, he pushed back on SMART goals, proposing an alternative by Mark Murphy called HARD goals.  After reading up on it and reflecting for several hours, I could see a number of issues with the SMART goal-setting process.  One of them is that it's highly outcome-oriented:

Specific: exactly what outcome do you want, as of a particular date?
Measurable: how much or how many of it do you want to see on this date?
Achievable: is there any obstacle between you and this outcome?
Realistic: Do you have what you need to reach such an outcome by this date?
Timely: So, what is this date, already?

As you can see, it's all about something being completed on a particular date in the future. There's a problem with this. SMART goals are really just small steps intended to take you toward a long-term goal.  But many long-term goals (dreams) are never-ending.  I dream of being an excellent teacher.  But there will never be a day where I stand up, wipe my hands and announce, "At last! I have reached teaching perfection!"  If I'm working my way through a never-ending sequence of future-oriented SMART outcomes, when do I pay attention to today?

I'm not dismissing the idea of setting goals.  It's more a matter of questioning whether outcomes really represent success.  For example, imagine a guy who wants so much to complete a marathon that he runs through a serious injury and later must give up his hobby of running. He completed the marathon. Is he a successful runner?  Another person wants a promotion so badly that she ruins personal relationships to get it.  Later, her damaged relationships reduce her ability to collaborate and negotiate (not to mention her diminished emotional support and enjoyment on the job). She got the promotion.  Is she a success at work?

If I let myself become outcome-driven, I can be looking so hard into the future that I don't see the present. I can miss experiences with my loved ones, fail to see health issues in myself, ignore warning signs at my place of work, and so forth.

As a person who has followed passions with gusto for many years, I'm all for setting goals and being willing to put a lot of effort into meeting them.  But how could I do this without being ruled by outcomes?

I'm wondering ...

What are my intentions?  What will the outcomes be?
What if I turned my long-term goal into a short-term goal by setting the deadline for today?  And what if I reset it again every day?  In the morning, I consider my options and set an intention, then go about my business.  If I'm truly paying attention throughout the day, I will remember my intention often. If my intention is meaningful to me (as it is likely to be, since I set it this morning), I'll act on it.  Each morning, I review the effect of past actions and let this inform my intention-setting for the new day.

Note that there's room in this plan for many of the concepts embedded in SMART goal-setting.  I choose a specific intention each day.  I review the effects of past actions (I can measure, and I can write it down and make graphs from it or whatever ... I'm just not focused on measuring up to some preset value by some artificially-determined date).  When I'm choosing my intention, I can consider potential obstacles and resources.  And I couldn't be more timely than right now!  This turns outcomes into the side effects of open-ended choices, rather than looming targets that limit my choices.

What do you think? Do you think this could work for a teacher?  A learner?  What would a notebook that recorded intentions and effects look like?  Could it replace lesson plans?  Could it replace homework?


  1. Thanks Kathy for thinking further and expanding Tony's blog post that left me with a HUh? feeling that I couldn't pin down why at the time. Right in the beginning of your text something hit me though... the interactions in the classroom and learning going on are so dynamic and organic that planning the outcomes will be just that "a plan". I remember learning and been asked to abide to these rules of thumbs when planning successful lessons... I mean following the SMART to plan my lessons.
    They look innocent at first and quite helpful, but most of the time and with the tasks we provide, if you really take a closer look at the students and what they learned during that lesson the outcome we planned wasn't as we expected from everyone in the class, and that happens not because planning was bad, just because this isn't like math (2 + 2 = 4). It is not just a matter of step by step procedures either.

    Now, I'm off to finish reading your post. :D and back to Tony's post.

    1. I know what you're saying, Rose! I spent my first year planning specific outcomes for my lessons and then trying to force them to happen. When I lightened up, so often the students just took things where they needed to go. A lot of useful and interesting lessons have come just from responding to unpredicted questions in class!

  2. ok, got at the end of the post. Sorry for posting the other one first. But when something comes to me, I need to write or it will be lost forever.

    At the end you ask some serious questions. But I am afraid I can't tell what would work. More often than not we discover what don't work simply because in order to know if it does or not is by doing it. So, try it out and let us know if it worked well for you. I hope it does. If not, keep looking for possibilities and put them to trial and learn from them. I think I am repeating John's words right? I guess I learned the lessons he intended for us to learn. I am not sure though if we all learned and if we did in what extend we differ from one another. See??

    IN 2012 I did something pretty different from what I used to do. What I saw happening in class motivated me much more because I could see each student as a learner and not as a student. But I am still learning on how to keep track of it all. Hopefully in 2013, I can see many more learners learning, than students meeting the school system criteria.

  3. You're right, I need to try it out and share what works or doesn't work. I've had the idea of a real-time journal percolating on the back burner since Kevin Stein mentioned it on his blog and at iTDI. Then, in Beaking Rules, we learned more about how to make use of recording what happens (audio and video). That's more real-time journalling, sort of. And if my lesson plans AND my professional development efforts are to come from the information I'm gathering in class ... Why not keep it all in the same place? Still puzzling over how that would look, though. And how it would affect the lesson plans I have to turn in every month, ha ha!

    Sometimes I walk out of class grinning because so much learning happened that day. Other times, I walk out cringing. I guess those are the ones to record and examine, hey?