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How goal setting has evolved: Replacing SMART with the 5As test

Goal setting header

Goal set­ting has been a key fac­tor in the over­all shift in per­for­mance man­age­ment in the past few years. The empha­sis in per­for­mance man­age­ment has moved away from the dread­ed annu­al appraisal (the teacher’s report’) to con­tin­u­ous per­for­mance man­age­ment — an ongo­ing per­for­mance devel­op­ment approach. With­in the field of per­for­mance man­age­ment, one of the areas that has evolved sig­nif­i­cant­ly is goal set­ting. With the rapid evo­lu­tion of organ­i­sa­tion­al change, goal set­ting tech­niques need to be re-eval­u­at­ed and changed.

Tra­di­tion­al goal setting

When Peter Druck­er launched his sem­i­nal Man­age­ment by Objec­tives’ goal-set­ting mod­el in 1954, it was ground-break­ing to involve employ­ees as stake­hold­ers in the objec­tive-set­ting process. It looked good on paper, and its objec­tive cas­cade process from senior lead­er­ship through the hier­ar­chy to the bot­tom of the pyra­mid worked well for the more pre­dictable times. 

Employ­ees were expect­ed to set 12-month objec­tives, despite the fact that they would like­ly be out of date by the end of the first quar­ter. Why? Because what mat­tered was hav­ing some­thing doc­u­ment­ed that could be mea­sured and assessed lat­er. Employ­ees and man­agers knew it was a point­less exer­cise, but it ticked a box.

But times have changed, and it’s time for goal set­ting to be modernised.

Goal set­ting needs to focus on per­for­mance improve­ment — not pure­ly on per­for­mance mea­sure­ment. Goals need to be near-term so that they are moti­va­tion­al and mean­ing­ful. In our expe­ri­ence, most goals should be achiev­able in the next 1 – 4 months to keep employ­ees focused and moti­vat­ed. Goals need to be reg­u­lar­ly reviewed to stay rel­e­vant mean­ing­ful (for exam­ple, every quarter).

What does this mean in prac­ti­cal terms? What has to change?

Time to move on: replac­ing SMART with the 5A’s test

How many times have you heard the words your objec­tives need to be SMART?” You can prob­a­bly recite the acronym: Spe­cif­ic, Mea­sur­able, Achiev­able, Real­is­tic, Time-bound. The trou­ble with SMART’ is it only tells part of the sto­ry in mod­ern, com­plex, rapid­ly evolv­ing, col­lab­o­ra­tive organ­i­sa­tions. For that rea­son, we think it’s time for a new way of think­ing about objec­tives, and we have devised a new test: the 5As test. Pro­gres­sive organ­i­sa­tions should ensure their employ­ees and man­agers cre­ate joint­ly set objec­tives that are assess­able, aspi­ra­tional, aligned, account­able and agile:

The 5As:

  • ASSESS­ABLE means an objec­tive can be clear­ly mea­sured so that it’s clear when it’s been achieved
  • ASPI­RA­TIONAL means an objec­tive is stretch­ing and deliv­ery dri­ves high performance
  • ALIGNED means an objec­tive aligns with, and dri­ves, the wider team and orga­ni­za­tion­al goals
  • ACCOUNT­ABLE means an objec­tive is with­in the employee’s con­trol, and it is clear where there is shared own­er­ship with collaborators
  • AGILE means that the objec­tive is near-term (for exam­ple, achiev­able in the next 1 – 4 months), and it is reviewed at a cadence that keeps it rel­e­vant and mean­ing­ful (for exam­ple, every quarter)

Prac­ti­cal tips on how to have a good goal-set­ting conversation 

It’s not a bad idea to give your man­agers and employ­ees some guid­ance to ensure they have a real­ly great goal-set­ting con­ver­sa­tion. You may want to share some of our top tips with them: 

Agree on pri­or­i­ty per­for­mance goals 

Agree on a few high-qual­i­ty goals which clar­i­fy your key pri­or­i­ties for the forth­com­ing peri­od. Ask your­self what is crit­i­cal for you to deliv­er this peri­od — it’s much bet­ter to have a few crit­i­cal goals than a huge wish list. 

Agree on per­son­al devel­op­ment goals 

It’s also impor­tant to set per­son­al devel­op­ment goals which will inspire and enable you to achieve per­son­al suc­cess at work. These might relate to per­son­al strengths or areas of inter­est that you can lever­age for yours and the team’s ben­e­fit. Or they could be areas of per­son­al devel­op­ment which you need to address to improve your per­son­al performance.

Use the 5As Test’ to set high-qual­i­ty goals

To ensure your goals meet the 5 As test, ask your­self these key questions: 


  • Is it clear what you are expect­ed to achieve and what suc­cess would look like (whether mea­sured in terms of quan­ti­ty or quality)? 
  • Is it clear what mea­sures and tar­gets will be used to track progress against the goal? 


  • Is the goal stretch­ing and chal­leng­ing whilst still achievable? 
  • Would suc­cess­ful achieve­ment dri­ve high per­for­mance at an indi­vid­ual and team level? 
  • Are the chal­lenges or obsta­cles under­stood and manageable? 


  • Does the goal align with your team’s, department’s and company’s wider objectives? 
  • Will suc­cess dri­ve the orga­ni­za­tion to deliv­er its strate­gic goals? 
  • Is the goal rel­e­vant to you and your role? 


  • Is the goal direct­ly owned by you and with­in your control? 
  • Do you share own­er­ship for suc­cess with any collaborators? 
  • Do these col­lab­o­ra­tors also have this goal in their set of agreed goals? 


  • Does the goal have a moti­va­tion­al, real­is­tic, near-term time­frame for deliv­ery (for exam­ple, is it achiev­able with­in the next 1 – 4 months)? 
  • Can the entire goal be achieved with­in the near-term (if not, con­sid­er set­ting inter­im mile­stones to main­tain focus and track progress)? 
  • When will you review (and if appro­pri­ate amend) the goal to keep it rel­e­vant and meaningful? 

Once you’ve set your goals, you should sched­ule a date for your next check-in to dis­cuss progress. 

Learn more about goal setting

Watch our webi­nar to learn more about goal set­ting. This webi­nar explores What SMART goals are being replaced with in suc­cess­ful organizations.”