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A pathway to elevated performance with "SMART+" goal-setting

So what are goals, and why are they so vital?


My recent mountaineering / ski-touring trip with Jacob Dans, scaling one of North America's iconic peaks, Mt. Andromeda, in the infamous Columbia Icefield, highlighted the importance of goal-setting and the numerous parallels between mountaineering and business that I love to explore.


According to Wikipedia, goal setting is committing thought, emotion, and behaviour toward attaining a deliberate objective. In my experience, goals are to have a vision of how we would like our life and business to be. They give teams focus, and we develop strategies to realize these goals. For me, goals are a significant source of motivation to achieve individually and collectively, e.g. climbing an interesting peak with a team like Mt. Andromeda, skiing off the summit, or helping a client solve a complex problem. Goals give you a mission statement, i.e., what you want to do during this climbing season or business quarter.


The science behind goal setting points to some interesting chemical reactions in the brain.


Dopamine and Serotonin are essential neurotransmitters influencing our motivation, emotions, and overall well-being, which might explain why when I climb something big like Mt Andromeda, something good seems to happen inside my brain.


Let's delve into how they relate to goal setting.


Firstly, Dopamine is often associated with pleasure, reward, and motivation. According to Psychology Today, when you complete a task or achieve a goal, Dopamine provides positive reinforcement. This encourages you to continue pursuing similar actions. You can manipulate your dopamine levels by setting small goals and accomplishing them. For instance, promising yourself a reward (even a small one) can trigger dopamine release upon achieving a specific milestone.


But there's more. A recent article in Heath News explains that while Dopamine takes center stage, Serotonin plays a supporting role in motivation. Accomplishing goals releases not only Dopamine but also other neurotransmitters like Serotonin. Serotonin is linked to feelings of happiness, contentment, and emotional balance. The emotional boost from Serotonin can lead to a more positive outlook, increased resilience in the face of challenges, and reduced stress and anxiety.


In summary, Dopamine and Serotonin contribute to our motivation and success in achieving our goals.


Success in terms of goal setting starts with the SMART goals.


SMART goals were developed by George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham in their timeless 1981 article "There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives." They define SMART goals as specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based.


On a routine basis, as I reflect on the past year and work and personal accomplishments, I start setting future SMART goals. I think about what mountain to climb that offers a unique experience, a challenge or an opportunity. Mt. Andromeda interested me due to the expedition-style assent on the massive Columbia Icefield, cold polar conditions and the vast scale. You camp on the glacier, surrounded by enormous mountains, covered in snow, ice, seracs and crevices, with nobody around but your team for kilometres. It's genuinely remote and a chance to get perspective.


While SMART goals are old news, they are still highly relevant in mountaineering and business and specifically include:


  • Keeping your goals SPECIFIC. A broad goal like "become a better climber" is easy to write off and leaves you unmotivated. Instead, I aimed to "climb Mt. Andromeda via a particular ski touring route." This is a clear and specific goal that has a very distinct end.

  • Making goals MEASURABLE. You should be able to track progress with some form of measurement. For example, reaching the summit in a certain amount of time while staying safe and avoiding avalanches. These benchmarks give you motivation as well along the way.

  • Goals that are also ATTAINABLE. Be realistic. It's good to shoot for the stars, but not too extreme. If your goal is unrealistic, you may feel discouraged and not make any progress. For example, if you want to stay alive, you cannot expect to scale a significant peak like Andromeda without previous mountain rescue and avalanche safety experience.

  • Ensuring goals are RELEVANT to you and the business you support. Why is your goal important to you? Are you setting this goal for yourself or someone else? This may sound like a no-brainer, but setting goals that are not relevant to you can be a recipe for disaster. For example, climbing a mountain that interests you for the experience, and not simply getting to the top. For me, the experience of living for several nights on one of Canada's largest glaciers was exciting.

  • Goals with TIMELINESS, a finish line, so to speak. This motivates you to start and keep pushing to the end. An open-ended goal is not motivating and can leave you to slack off and not put in the time to reach it. At the beginning of this year, I set my sights on Mt. Andromeda and wanted to attempt the mountain in 2024.


However, goal setting involves much more than the core SMART goals.


More than 25 years of climbing different mountains worldwide, as well as working in business as a leader and strategic advisor, have provided me with critical goal-setting lessons beyond the "SMART" concept. There is simply more to it. These additional "+" or "SMART+" considerations, as I call them, include:


+      Writing down your goals and keeping them VISIBLE serves several purposes – First, it solidifies your commitment to achieving them by transforming abstract ideas into tangible objectives. Second, it constantly reminds you and your team of what you're working towards, helping stay focused and motivated. Third, it is a reference point for tracking progress and evaluating performance. Sounds hokey, but I put an image of Mt. Andromeda and other mountains as my laptop screen-saver, reminding me of whats ahead.


+      Focusing on POSITIVE rather than negative goals – This is crucial for maintaining motivation and a constructive mindset, particularly when grinding up a big peak. Positive goals are aspirational and inspiring, driving you and your teamtowards achievement and growth. In contrast, dwelling on negative goals can breed feelings of pessimism and defeatism, undermining your confidence and resolve.


+      Setting too many goals can lead to feeling overwhelmed, so PRIORITIZE – To prevent this, it's essential to keep your goal-setting process simple and focused. Prioritize the most important goals to you and the team and align them with the overarching objectives. By concentrating your efforts on a few key goals, you can allocate your time and resources more effectively, increasing the likelihood of success and reducing the risk of spreading yourself too thin.


+      Establishing a HIERARCHY of goals allows you to focus and sequence your objectives effectively – By placing safety first on the mountain, our climbing group ensured that the foundation of our endeavours was secure, minimizing risks and prioritizing well-being. From there, we could outline intermediate goals leading to your ultimate destination. Breaking down larger goals into smaller, manageable steps, such as reaching specific mountain landmarks, provides clarity and direction, making the journey more manageable and achievable.


+      Goal ALIGNMENT within your team fosters collaboration – You create a unified sense of purpose and direction by establishing a shared understanding of priorities and objectives. On Mt. Andromeda for Jacob Dans, Kristen Meilicke, and I, this alignment began with a focus on safety, ensuring everyone is committed to maintaining a secure environment on the mountain. Through regular communication and collaboration, you can ensure everyone is on the same page regarding goals, responsibilities, and expectations, maximizing effectiveness and cohesion within the team.


+      PROCESS goals are just as significant as outcome goals – While outcome goals represent the ultimate destination, like climbing Mt. Andromeda, process goals outline the steps necessary to reach that destination. By focusing on these smaller tasks, each completed action provides a sense of accomplishment, boosting morale and reinforcing the feeling of progress – getting to the toe of the glacier and reaching the saddle of the mountain.


+      FLEXIBILITY is essential in goal-setting, as circumstances and environments are subject to change – Recognizing that not all goals are set in stone allows you to adapt and respond effectively to evolving situations. Whether it's shifting priorities, unforeseen challenges like stormy weather, a stove that breaks, avalanche risks, or new opportunities, maintaining flexibility enables you to navigate uncertainty with resilience and creativity.


+      Regularly reviewing and REVISING your goals is essential for staying on track – As you progress on your journey, it's natural for priorities, resources, and external factors to shift. By regularly reassessing your goals, you can ensure they remain relevant, realistic, and aligned with your evolving aspirations. Whether weekly, monthly, or quarterly, carving out time for reflection and goal refinement empowers you to maintain momentum.


+      Frequently MONITORING your performance against your established goals – This allows you to track your progress, identify areas for improvement, and make necessary adjustments to your strategies or actions. Without monitoring, it's challenging to gauge whether you're on track to achieve your goals or if any modifications are needed. You can maintain accountability by staying vigilant and closely monitoring your performance.


+      CELEBRATING achievements along the way is vital – While major goals represent significant achievements, the more minor victories keep you and the team energized and engaged throughout the journey. By breaking down larger goals into smaller, more manageable tasks, you create opportunities for regular success and progress. Celebrating these achievements through shared recognition reinforces your commitment and inspires continued effort toward your overarching objectives.


The universal impact of goal setting is clear, so take it seriously to achieve elevated performance.


In business and mountaineering, setting clear SMART+ goals provides direction, motivation, and a framework for success. Just as a well-defined business goal guides strategic decision-making and resource allocation, a summit goal like Mt. Andromeda guides every step of a mountaineering expedition, from route planning to equipment selection. Moreover, the process of breaking down ambitious goals into manageable tasks, monitoring progress, and adapting to changing conditions is as crucial in the corporate world as it is in high-altitude pursuits.


Ultimately, the similarities between goal setting in business and mountaineering highlight fundamental principles of achievement that transcend specific contexts. Both require vision, determination, resilience, and collaboration to overcome obstacles and reach new heights. Whether scaling a peak or the ranks of corporate performance, the discipline of goal setting empowers individuals and teams to turn aspirations into reality, one step at a time. So, whether you're plotting a course for your next business venture or planning your next summit attempt, remember success begins with a clear goal and the commitment to see it through to the summit.


By Dr. Lance Mortlock (EY Managing Partner Energy & Resources Canada, Author of Disaster Proof & Adjunct Associate Professor)


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