Having been a member of staff, a manager and a consultant I have met SMART objectives many times and in many forms. Being faced with the need to create them for myself and help my team create once again, I feel the need to vent some frustration with the apparent obsession with something that I have finally come to conclude can be a harmful activity that is sometimes best avoided. This article explains why I consider SMART objectives should not be developed.
Apparently, the best order to consider your objectives is M-A-R-S-T: so let’s begin…
Measurable is supposed to be the most important consideration. This allows you and everyone else know that you’ve achieved your objective.
But this creates a problem – not everything worth achieving is easily measurable.
Therefore you are left with the option of picking something easy to measure or you spend time creating a measurement scheme that accurately reflects what you are trying to achieve.
There are many tales of company activities being distorted by inappropriate measures. Staff changed their behaviour to reflect the measures that their performance was being judged by, “to hell with customer service, I’m measured on how many calls I complete inside 2 minutes”. The thing is that such measures seemed entirely reasonable when they were developed.
There are three basic approaches to measuring schemes that are often introduced when simple approaches fail. Measuring schemes that mimic balanced scorecards, those that have several measures that are in tension with each other, and surveys.
Balanced scorecard based approaches are often introduced without an understanding of how balanced scorecards drive performance. A complete set of objectives should be based on a strategy map i.e. a diagram showing the cause and effect relationships between the achievement of different objectives which ultimately result in the achievement of the financial objectives of the organisation. Without the understanding of cause and effect, the result is that objectives conflict and the individual’s contribution to the overall performance does not improve.
These strategy maps must be consistent throughout the organisation at all levels and across all functions to be effective. Without this consistency, all that results is a random set of activities that does not deliver improved business performance. My experience of getting this right is that is takes about 3 months at about 25% of managers time to get the scheme right, then it has to be updated every few months. The overhead is just not acceptable!
The tension approach requires that conflicting objectives (e.g. quality vs. timescale vs. cost) are formulated and the result is a creative balance. Again, such an approach requires significant management effort to deliver and, quite simply, most managers either are too busy or can’t be bothered!
The last resort of the manager required to measure the immeasurable is to “ask the customer”. On the basis that everyone has a “customer” and “customer service is a good thing” then it must be valid to “ask the customer”. Unfortunately, as the work of Kaplan and Norton on balanced scorecards and strategy maps shows, the customer is only one dimension in the equation. In addition, why is an internal customer’s subjective opinion of your service that is probably biased by politics a reasonable measure that drives corporate performance?
Inevitably, the measure becomes the managers gut feel back up with a reasoned argument based on some anecdotes.
- It’s measurable
- Others have done it successfully before you
- It’s theoretically possible
- You have the necessary resources, or at least a realistic chance of getting them
- You’ve assessed the limitations
This is pure cowardice, if you want to be successful, if you want to make an impact, you need guts. Making sure you can succeed before you start is for wimps! Leaders take risks, they attempt the impossible. Sometimes they succeed – and its fun to succeed. Sometimes they fail – where’s the next challenge?
As an interim manager I built a career taking on jobs that no-one thought could be achieved. In fact, no-one understood the jobs, they just knew something had to be done, and I was up for a challenge. My most satisfying and successful jobs have come by “going where angels fear to tread”.
Apparently, you should be realistic because even if it’s achievable, it may not be realistic. You need to understand…
- Who’s going to do it?
- Do they have (or can they get) the skills to do a good job?
- Where’s the money coming from
- Who carries the can?
This is all about getting the resources to do the job. To me that’s just part of the job, you don’t start with the resources. You decide to do it, you get the resources, you deliver, simple!
The key is that what you are doing is important enough and that you can convince others of this.
Your conviction and passion are far more important than realism.
Apparently, the devil is in the detail. The guidelines say that you will know your objective is specific enough if:
- Everyone who’s involved knows that they are involved – no, we’ll get going and win them over when we need to!
- Everyone involved understands what we are trying to achieve – no, we’ll develop an understanding together as we progress.
- Your objective is free from jargon – I’m all for writing it down, it becomes more real, but lets develop a language together that works for everyone.
In a dynamic environment, you start with an idea and only with an idea. Then you act on it and bring people along. Those that can help get involved and develop the idea further, it becomes a team thing, its not mine anymore, it belongs to all of us.
If we wait for the specific, then the enthusiasm goes and the best ideas, which are often the most difficult to conceive of as successful, never get started.
Timely means setting deadlines.
Time is money, so is quality – too many people get hung up on artificial deadlines that damage the business by riding roughshod over people’s private life and reducing the quality of delivery.
The only real deadline is one where someone dies if you don’t make it, so lets get the value of a timeframe into perspective.
This isn’t an excuse for procrastination or for delay, everything has an appropriate timescale. Often you can’t know it until after you start, if that’s the case then don’t create an artificial deadline.
There’s nothing wrong with having a hoped for timescale, a target can be useful to focus the mind, there’s nothing wrong with having review points, but if you don’t know when your objective will delivered that doesn’t mean you can’t start.
SMART objectives can create inertia and are sometimes an excuse for doing very little. They can damage businesses by stifling creativity, squashing enthusiasm and making mediocrity acceptable. They are a crutch for poor managers.
If you want to improve your bottom line, recruit leaders, encourage leaders, then give everyone the freedom to achieve.