Do FAST goals trump SMART goals?

When you last sat down with your team to discuss their future career path, their current work performance and set future objectives, it’s likely that SMART goals – those that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound – formed the basis of the conversation. That’s no surprise – SMART goals have their roots in the 1950s when management guru Peter Drucker introduced “management by objectives”, an approach whereby employees would agree with their manager on a set of goals and work toward achieving those goals throughout the year. Research[1] shows that almost 70 years later, employees set goals for themselves and their teams in 95% of organisations.

However, some have questioned whether SMART goals still cut it.

“SMART goals undervalue ambition, focus narrowly on individual performance, and ignore the importance of discussing goals throughout the year,” according to research findings published in a comprehensive 2018 MIT Sloan Management Review article.[2]

It’s been called a battle of acronyms, but today a new goal-setting model is being advocated: FAST goals. FAST goals are:

F – Frequently discussed. Goals are constantly being reviewed and evaluated
A – Ambitious. Goals are difficult but not impossible to achieve
S – Specific. Goals are translated into metrics and milestones, which helps provide clarity on the next steps necessary to achieve objectives and measure progress
T – Transparent. Everyone can see what your goals are, and you can see what your colleagues’ goals are.

A succinct summary of FAST goals appeared in the MIT Sloan Management article:table

Unlike SMART goals, the FAST approach emphasises setting goals that are difficult but not impossible to achieve, embeds them into ongoing discussions for constant evaluation and feedback, and then publicises these goals for transparency.

However, the shift towards FAST goal setting is far from easy. The traditional performance management framework in many organisations doesn’t help the cause. Waiting for a year to receive feedback on goals in an often one-sided manager / employee conversation doesn’t provide much scope for course correction and doesn’t encourage feedback – which can be a key motivator for employees – to occur regularly.

Indeed, providing feedback to employees is a recurring theme, regardless of whether SMART or FAST goal setting is implemented. In the MIT Sloan Management Review research, some 70% of surveyed managers said they want monthly updates on how they were tracking against their goals. However, only half said they received monthly feedback. This may be slowly changing, as an increasing number of high-profile organisations (including Google, Accenture and IBM) reinvent their traditional performance appraisal process to incorporate ongoing discussions on how employees are tracking, which keeps these objectives top of mind throughout the year.

That’s not to say SMART goals are redundant. FAST goals actually borrow certain workable elements of SMART goals (for example, the metrics, the match between metrics and realistic timeframes), while correcting some of their drawbacks. What’s clear is that in stable and predictable settings, SMART goals remain valuable and viable. However, in a volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous (VUCA – another acronym!) world, where context changes rapidly, FAST goals may be just what’s needed to create a high-performing culture.


ELMO Cloud HR & Payroll’s Performance Management solution offers a range of pre-built goals and development objectives, which can be utilised to create a library of performance management content for use across the business. Configurable workflows can also be set up to match any organisation’s approach to performance management. For further information, click here. To determine the potential financial, time and resource savings possible by implementing ELMO Performance Management, use our ROI Calculator.

[1] Mercer Global, “2013 Global Performance Management Survey Report Executive Summary”

[2] “With Goals, FAST Beats SMART”, by Donald Sull of the MIT Sloan School of Management and Charles Sull of Charles Thames Strategy Partners LLC, published in MIT Sloan Management Review, June 2018

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Learn more about how ELMO can help your organisation.