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The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection?

Are you working toward your goals? Everybody has goals. rsonal goals or business goals, goals get us from theory to practice and often back to do it again. Although it is difficult to pin down the exact origin, by the early 1980s organization behaviorists and management consultants were using the SMART goal acronym regularly.

S Specific M Measurable A Achievable or Attainable R Relevant or Realistic T Tangible, Timely, Trackable, Time bound, or Tied to a completion date.

By the variety of A R and T we see some disagreement among the experts, but Specific and Measurable have always been part of goal and objective setting, even before we thought it was the SMART way to do it. Since the 1940s, goal setting guides also encouraged goals and objectives to be relevant to the operation and to be tangible, warning that goals that had no clear desired endpoint were no more that wishes or dreams, thus negating their measurability. And so, at least two generations of engineers, mechanics, life scientists, athletes, or anybody who wanted to enhance their performance and improve outcomes set their sights on SMRT goals.

In the 1981 article “There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives,” George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham called for goals to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.(1) The first time the SMART acronym was used was in Ken Blanchard’s 1985 book, “Leadership and the One Minute Manager” which he said stood for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and trackable.(2) Whoever said it first, “A” now stood for: when you write your goals, reach for the ceiling, not the stars. Perhaps this is what those postwar engineers intended when they included “tangible” among goal criteria, but the inclusion now of “achievable” in most SMART goal guides has created some interesting ideals to strive for.

"We won’t ever be perfect, but in the process we will achieve greatness."

Consider sports. The great football coach Vince Lombardi is credited with saying, “We will be relentless in our pursuit of perfection. We won’t ever be perfect, but in the process we will achieve greatness.” In 1976, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci was perfect at the 1976 Olympics by scoring “10” for her performance in the uneven parallel bars performance. Perfection could be reach! In fact, Comăneci reached perfection seven times at the 1976 games and twice more at the 1980 games. But Comăneci wasn’t the only gymnast at Montreal to score 10s. Soviet gymnast Nellie Kim scored three other perfect scores at the 1976 Games. By 1988, a staggering 91 perfect scores had been recorded just at Olympic competitions. In 2006, the International Gymnastics Federation revised scoring procedures and the 10 was no longer. But the perfect barrier had been perfectly breached and others were manipulating scores to reflect, if not perfection, achievable excellence, through some interestingly redefined standards of perfect. One example is the National Football League’s (NFL) Quarterback Passing Rating Scale, a rating system to grade quarterbacks’ passing games, where a “perfect” rating is 158.3.

Sports is not the only field that has created some unusual benchmarks for perfection. Academics are familiar with the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and its mark of perfection at 1600. Those furthering their education may be aiming for a top Graduate Record Examination (GRE) score of 340, a 180 on a Law School Admission Test (LSAT) or 528 on their Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). As pharmacists we know 150 is perfect on the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination (NAPLEX) and 100 on the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Examination (MPJE). After you’ve gotten to school and passed your license exams, you may want a new car or house and that would require a good credit score. The most widely used versions of FICO and VantageScore credit ratings top out at 850 but lenders typically consider anything above 800 “perfect.” The Perfect 10 has been sorely supplanted with ever increasing “loftier” goals.

The interesting thing about all these tests and ratings, is that, like gymnastics’ perfect 10, the highest achievable score has been met, and in some instances is routinely met. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines perfect as being entirely without fault or defect or corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept. That makes it clear that regardless of how one might decide to declare a score “perfect” there will always be something further to strive. No process, like no person, will ever be without defect and can always be improved. If the ideal is met, you simply redefine ideal.

Sometime in the early 21st century even the ideal goal was redefined and SMARTER goals became popular. SMART goals were made smartER by adding two new elements. Unlike SMART goals, there have been no groundbreaking research and publication of what makes a goal SMARTER and most of the Es and Rs appear to be more hype than helpful. Typically, SMARTER goal templates include immeasurable criteria as

E Exciting, Eternal, Enthusiastic, or Ethical R Rewarding, Reviewable, and one seemingly contradictory Risky

But you can redefine the new definition and really improve on the benefits of SMART goal setting. When I write SMARTER goals, I prefer to make mine legitimately smarter by adding

E Evaluate R Redo or Readjust

Thus, when the attainable is attained or the achievable achieved, there is built in a method to redefine the ideal, thus keeping the perfect 10 (or 158.3) something to strive for.

The relentless pursuit of perfection, or the pursuit of greatness redefined? Like those in Coach Lombardi’s locker room, we may not ever achieve perfection, but it’s better to be great any day, anyway.


(1)George T. Doran, “There’s a S. M. A. R. T. Way to Write Management Goals and Objectives”, Management Review (AMA Forum), November 1981, pps. 35-36.

(2)Blanchard, Kenneth, Leadership and the One Minute Manager, (LOMM), 1985, pg. 89.

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