Perennial issues with SMART objectives

The mnemonic SMART is so widely used as a guide for objective-setting that it runs the risk of losing its efficacy. A reliable indicator of this occurs when when practitioners, frustrated with the over-use or misapplication of a heuristic technique, come up with a semi-humorous alternative which actually makes more sense.  For example, the late Penny Lacey, an influential educationalist, found that the use of SMART objectives when setting development goals for children with learning difficulties was completely inappropriate.1   Instead, she preferred SCRUFFY objectives (Student-led, Creative, Relevant, Unspecified Fun for Youngsters). It is obvious even to the layperson that she was right; that she must have been right to object to the use of a corporate planning mechanism in the complex, specialized, contingent and consequence-laden realm of child development.  To me, the worrying thing about this story is the prior fact that some of Lacey’s peers in the special education field must have thought that SMART objective-setting was appropriate for children with profound learning difficulties.

We tend to think that SMART objectives have been around for ever – in fact, they were first described in the management literature less than 35 years ago

The first consideration of SMART objective-setting then, as with so many other useful but limited heuristic tools, is to know when to use it and when not to. Recently I met with a mentee who told me that the SMART objectives I had thought were helping her, were actually discouraging.  By bringing the language of the planning meeting into a personal development process that she viewed as taking place outside the routine of her day-to-day work, I had unwittingly made it less interesting and refreshing for her.  So, I have learnt to think carefully, and ask myself whether highly motivated individuals actually benefit from SMART objective-setting, before applying it in the very personal domain of skills auditing and development.

SMART objectives belong in formal planning processes

The whole point of SMART is that it should make objectives unarguable and crystal clear.  It seems sensible to use it in situations where communication and collaboration are at a premium:

  • The intensely political environment of corporate boards
  • The demanding environment of functionally-organized (‘u-form’) organizations in which planning communication must be absolutely unambiguous in order to punch through functional barriers
  • the communication of plans between organizations or workgroups whose worldviews or cultures are incompatible.

The language of specifics

In the generic planning process used within most commercial organizations, objective-setting (deciding WHAT to do) is merely the prelude to strategizing (deciding HOW to achieve objectives).  It is the strategic part of any plan, in which practical options are identified, and a justifiable choice is made between them, which will polarize the opinions of stakeholders and cause them to embrace or resist a particular objective.

It is vital that the objective itself is framed in language that is persuasive in the strategic/political process which it will set in motion. The language of the specification should therefore be the language used by the most important stakeholders to the objective.

The measure

Ideally the measure used should be quantitative and objective – validity and reliability issues with measuring progress can undermine even the best objectives and allow political or personal issues to obscure them.  If at all possible, the measure itself should be meaningful to the objective’s key stakeholders. This is rarely problematic in the case of corporate shareholders, as most operational variables can be expressed in immediate financial terms, while established valuation methodologies take care of the financial aspects of future activity.

If the primary stakeholder in an objective is not the shareholder, things get more interesting. For example, let us assume that a private waste management contractor in the UK is seeking more business from local authorities as a corporate priority. A waste management company’s interests in measurement are primarily logistic – weight and volume over time determine the cost and resource implications of a particular service contract. However, a waste management company looking to do more business with local authorities would be well advised to translate its marketing objectives into the more detailed, regulatory measures imposed on local authorities by detailed secondary and European legislation.  These go well beyond the planning needs of the waste company, but they have the great advantage of being immediately understandable and compelling from the perspective of the high-value potential customer.

Quantification, especially for internal objectives which cannot be meaningfully expressed in terms of interval or ratio measures, may simply be unrealistic. In these cases the benefits of having a clearly articulated objective usually outweigh the disadvantage of a qualitative or subjective measure.

A is for Achievable

Ask most recent MBA graduates or corporate managers and they will tell you that the ‘A’ in SMART stands for ‘achievable.’ This has not always been the case – George Doran, in the influential Management Review article which first drew corporate attention to SMART objective-setting in 1982, uses ‘assignable’ instead.2  What he meant by this is that named, senior individuals within an organization should be visibly identified with the achievement (or non-achievement) of an objective. Within the continuous improvement worldview, this degree of emphasis on individual responsibility is problematic: we know that successful CI depends on the performance management of processes and a corresponding de-emphasis on the performance management of people.

In modern usage, therefore, the A stands for ‘achievable’ and refers to the totality of resources (transforming, transformed, human and financial) required to achieve the specific objective within a given timeframe.

SMART describes content, not process. Think ‘SMTRA.’

In most formal planning processes, the time element is something that will be imposed by the immovable realities of the organization we work within. Corporations, as Deming often remarked, are usually bound by the annual and semi-annual demands of shareholders for dividends.3  Even private companies will be heavily influenced by the annual financial reporting cycle. Central government organizations will be bound to the legislative timetable and the political cycle. Local government and third sector organizations will have their planning timescales set out in detailed regulation and secondary legislation.  There isn’t much we can do about any of this, which is why it is important to consider timing (T) before achievability (A) and realism (R).

‘Achievable’ and ‘Realistic’ aren’t just synonyms – they address different resource issues

I used to struggle badly with ‘achievable’ and ‘realistic.’  Surely they mean pretty much the same thing? This is what I thought until I had the good fortune to work on a project with a highly experienced HR consultant who told me that the ‘realism’ aspect is all about the way in which the objective is introduced to, and narrated by, the staff who will ultimately be responsible for it.  The changes and developments involved in moving from our current state to the successful achievement of the objective might require formal change management or less formal training and coaching activities; but it is completely unarguable that it will involve a number of individual employees and very possibly a range of internal stakeholder groups (different professional specialisms, trades unions, staff at different levels in the management hierarchy).  These individuals and groups must be capable of overcoming objections and ‘realizing’ the objective for themselves – through recognized contributions and ideally through ‘ownership’ – to have a good chance of achieving it.

  1. Unknown., 2015. Obituary: Penny Lacey, educationalist. Daily Telegraph, 05 February 2015.
  2. Doran, G.T., 1981. There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write managements’s goals and objectives. Management Review 70, 35.
  3. The rapacious shareholder was something of an obsession for Deming, featuring in two of his seven ‘Deadly Diseases’ of management. Deming, W.E., 1982. Out of the Crisis. Boston, MA: MIT Press. p79 and Ch3, passim.

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