Why SMART Objectives don’t work
In recent months I have noticed a number of management and training consultants and experts publishing blog articles on the “problems” with the SMART approach to setting objectives.
This prompted me to go back to the earliest published version of the SMART objective setting method I discovered while researching the origins some 4 years ago. Then everyone on the net thought that Drucker was the originator, However it was first published by Doran, G. T. (1981) “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives”, Management Review, Vol. 70, Issue 11, p35-36, 2p.
It’s true…. there is a lot of confusion and unnecessary complexity around SMART as it is often applied today: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant & Time Bound.
In his article Doran lists SMART as:
Specific - target a specific area for improvement.
Measurable - quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
Assignable - specify who will do it.
Realistic - state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
Time related – specify when the result can be achieved.
Many of the recent variants have changed the meanings of the words (Appropriate, Relevant etc) and in some cases worse.. Specific has been taken to mean “specific to the nth degree“.
In the article Doran said:
“Notice that these criteria don’t say that all objectives must be quantified on all levels of management. In certain situations it is not realistic to attempt quantification, particularly in staff middle management positions. Practicing managers and corporations can lose the benefit of a more abstract objective in order to gain quantification. It is the combination of the objective and its action plan that is really important. Therefore, serious management should focus on these twins and not just the objective.”
In other words, the framework needs to be flexed with the level, scope and purpose. He went on to say:
“It should also be understood that the suggested acronym doesn’t mean that every objective written will have all five criteria.”
While directing the readers to the mnemonic he positions the approach:
“”How do you write meaningful objectives?’- that is, frame a statement of results to be achieved, Managers are confused by all the verbal from seminars, books, magazines, consultants, and so on. Let me suggest therefore, that when it comes to writing effective objectives, corporate officers, managers, and supervisors just have to think of the acronym SMART. Ideally speaking, each corporate, department and section objective should be: (SMART).”
As well as the technique we need to look at the context in which Doran was positioning the model. In the late 1970s, the predominance of management articles was about task and process. What Doran had recognized was that the reason many people failed to set effective objectives was not the “scope” of the goal itself, but the behavioral elements within. His goal was not just to look at the mechanics of the objective itself, but the behavioral context in which they were set and delivered. Hence the human elements of assigned & realistic.
So why don’t SMART goals or objectives deliver?
It’s easy to say why SMART objectives don’t work… when we have been using a variant that often confuses people and is “tighter” in implementation than was initially proposed.
So if we want to be SMART, we need to drop the “modern twists” and go back to the original…
This article was originally published in September 2011 Revised April 2015
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