Getting the SMART Before the Course

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Despite the fact that most of us understand the logic behind setting goals, making a plan, working the plan, and then measuring progress against the plan, we habitually “put the cart before the horse” and skip straight to executing tactics without first considering how we will be successful.

To help my clients break this habit, I teach them how to set SMART goals first, and then plot their course with a plan consisting of tactics—all before a single line of copy, code, or creative is ever conceived. I call it “Putting the SMART Before the Course.”

The Typical Approach

We've all experienced the situation where your team needs a solution to some business challenge, and a meeting is called to discuss the issue and “come up with a plan.” Eager for a solution, someone presents the issue and immediately asks for ideas.

In what many might consider a good meeting, several tactical ideas are considered. Examples often include email or direct mail, a custom landing page, or the use of a new social platform. In some cases, someone comes up with a clever slogan or theme and everyone gets excited about the “plan.” Anxious to get to work, the team ends the meeting and dives into execution.

Sometime later, and sometimes never, the team notices that they haven't been as successful as they would have liked or, worse, they have no clue how well they did. In some cases the team finds that they were wildly successful, yet they can't answer the inevitable question—“How did we do that?"—and are frustrated about not being able to recreate their success in future efforts.

Why We Do It

One of the more common excuses cited for skipping goals and strategy is lack of time, which with few exception points to an entirely different problem—one that involves transparency, lead time, and accurate expectation setting, about which I’ll cover in a later post.

Often there are other underlying obstacles besides time, including:

  • No clear organizational strategy – In the absence of top-level organizational goals, teams lack connection with the mission and context for how to frame their work.
  • No awareness of or value for strategy – Some people have always been able to manage by simply “winging it” and don’t know or appreciate the value of plans in accomplishing goals.
  • Shiny object syndrome – Sometimes we get so excited about a new technology or approach, we forget to stop and think about how we will be successful.

While there are no guarantees that any strategy will be 100 percent effective or work every single time, you can dramatically improve your odds of success and your ability to repeat the success by letting the answers to a few basic questions help guide your actions.

A Simple Strategic Approach

Ensuring the success of your projects, whether they be fundraising appeals, outreach campaigns, or the undertaking of some new organizational initiative, is best accomplished by beginning with these four questions:

  1. What are we trying to accomplish and why? The answer to this question is best stated relative to the organization's mission and top priorities or goals.
  2. When we're finished, how will we know we were successful? This is best thought of in terms of one or more Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timed goals—the fewer goals the better.
  3. What is our plan for accomplishing our goal(s)? This is where tactics are first considered, but only from the perspective of how well each tactic will perform relative to goals and compared to other alternatives. Tactic details come later.
  4. Why are we confident that our plan will work? Here you not only plan conservatively but also draw a very clear correlation between the sum of individual tactics and the stated goal. This step relies heavily on inductive reasoning, which I’ll demonstrate in a future post.

Only when these four questions have been answered and agreed upon should you begin thinking about specific tactical details such as the design of collateral, number of mails sent, measuring conversion, etc.

Next Steps

This post is only a sneak preview of a full strategic process, but it is a great way to get started by dipping your toes in the water of thoughtful and systematic fundraising and marketing and to begin seeing results right away.