Can Innovation Be a Result of SMART Goals? | TechWell

Can Innovation Be a Result of SMART Goals?

The news about Satya Nadella becoming the CEO of Microsoft has been the talk of the town recently. In his first email to Microsoft employees, Nadella conveyed that "Our industry does not respect tradition — it only respects innovation."

Adopting innovation as a driving theme for an organization raises the important question of how best to set goals for achieving innovation. One of the popular philosophies of goal setting is known as SMART goals, which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.

The key benefit of adopting the SMART approach is that it brings as a package all the key elements needed in a typical goal. To put things in perspective, if your goals aren’t SMART, then they would be vague, indeterminate, unattainable, naïve, and late.

A curious question that arises is: Can the SMART goals philosophy be used for designing innovation goals? The concept of innovation can be broadly classified as incremental innovation and radical innovation.

Google's release of Gmail can be treated as an incremental innovation. Gmail didn’t invent an email system for the first time, but it made improvements to the existing system. An example of radical innovation is the company Virgin, who built businesses spanning several industries by challenging the obvious themes in each underlying industry.

Looking at these examples and relating them to the goal setting concept, it is quite evident that the SMART approach to goal setting could be very effective for the incremental innovation scenarios. Such scenarios typically have a well-defined and accepted system that needs a defined improvement.

For example, one of the possible Gmail goals could have been that the email service should be 30 percent faster than the closest competitor within the next six months. This meets the criteria of a SMART goal.

But unlike incremental innovation, radical innovations have a good deal of uncertainty and a possibility of failure and unrealism. Radical innovations, such as in the case of Apple, routinely deal with the element of impossibility. Such innovations can be approximately specific—Apple's desire to redefine the music industry—and can be relevant, but it’s hard to measure exactly and to lesser mortals would seem unattainable.

For example, Jeff Bezos' acquisition of The Washington Post may change the face of IT and journalism, a goal which may seem unattainable and like true research will probably have seemingly impossible, industry-redefining measures.

As stated in Leander Kahney's book Inside Steve's Brain:

Wanton Innovation is wasteful. There must be a direction, something to pull it all together. Some Silicon Valley companies develop new technologies and then go in search of problems for those technologies to solve. Take the Internet bubble of late 1990s. The bubble was defined by this kind of thinking. It was a carnival of worthless innovation—half-baked business ideas pumped into vast money-burning concerns in a misguided attempt to get big quick and beat the competition.

So SMART goals may help add direction to radical innovation, but they may not completely drive it to the end result. 

Do you agree?

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