Why SMART is actually stupid
Updated: Apr 21
I once worked for an organization that had a pretty stringent objective setting process. Every year, senior management would decide on the strategic direction of the organization and decide on a list of core objectives for the next year. Everyone wrote 4-6 individual SMART targets, in alignment with that longer list, in individual Excel spreadsheets which could be collated and carefully stored away. In theory, the organization had a full record of what everyone was going to do in order to help meet its goals. Everyone would be pulling in the same direction.
It was understood that objectives may change as the year progressed. So, 6 months on everyone would have a meeting with their managers to review and update the document. At the end of the 12 months if you had met your objectives and finances allowed, your manager could recommend you for a bonus.
Sounds sensible, right?
The trouble I always found was that life simply didn’t work that way, for me at least. Come the mid-point review I’d look back at the objectives I’d set myself just six months previously and get out the red pen (ok, red font). I’d delete one, add in one, reposition another. In the boxes where my manager and I would account for the work I’d done in that period there was always a scattering of “I didn’t do X because Y happened, so I did Z instead”. At the end of the year the same would happen again.
I always came away from the whole process thinking…what was the point? I was clearly never going to achieve what I’d set out to achieve. Things moved so quickly, targets changed in response to the changing context, the people, the needs of the organization. There was never going to be a time where I could definitively tick a box to say I’d done what I said I’d do – because I hadn’t. What I had done was what was actually needed. So why the complicated and time consuming paperwork? Moreover, in theory at the end of the 12 months, given that I hadn’t met all my objectives, my chances of getting a bonus could have been completely wiped. I found it safer, on that basis, to make my objectives as vague as possible, rendering them even more pointless.
The Human Learning Systems (HLS) approach, broadly speaking, says ditch KPIs, review learning instead. This is primarily in the context of the management of funding relationships (although also touches upon individual level accountability to a lesser degree). It recognizes that the world is a complex place, that organisations operate in complex systems and KPIs are too static, too inflexible to account for the world as it really is. An idea thrown very much into the light as Covid threw 2020 KPIs out of the window.
The HLS research suggests that, where a KPI becomes outdated and unachievable, an organization may be tempted to “game the system” in order to maintain funding streams. After all, KPIs are achievable in a predictable future, but the future is pretty unpredictable – but for a fundee this has real world and potentially livelihood-threatening consequences. They’re reliant on funders either being forgiving or not asking difficult questions about those numbers.
I think the same applies to people on an individual level. Individual objectives are, after all, a form of KPI, and the individuals are working within a complex system well beyond the forces within their organisation. What if instead of asking “how have you met this objective?” we asked people: “What has changed? What have you learned?”
More recently I’ve been talking to a lot of people about learning. I describe my job as one based around meeting interesting people doing interesting work, building relationships, learning about what’s going on and offering my help.* Increasingly I’m seeing my role as spotting links between people and things, connecting people up, contributing towards the development of a network of related communities. How on earth could I attach SMART targets to that in any kind of meaningful way? Far better, in my opinion, to periodically stop, look back, and ask myself what I’ve learned and how I could either apply it to my work or share it for the benefit of others.
But there’s more to it than that. One of my favourite ways of learning is through talking it through with others. It helps me crystallise my thoughts while also shining different lights on it through others’ perspectives. I’m challenged, sometimes uncomfortably so, but it makes me think harder about what I’m doing and why. It puts what’s in my head in others’ heads and adds new dimensions to their thinking. New mental connections are sparked for everyone. The experience is fun, it’s energizing. It has value in itself.
This shouldn’t surprise me. According to Clifton StrengthsFinder my top strength is “learner”. I was recently described as someone who is interested in people and interested in ideas. Learning, for me, has intrinsic value and adds colour to life. It also gives me opportunities to build relationships with others, to build human connections. That itself is motivating, much more than an objective in an Excel spreadsheet.
So my proposal is this: Ditch SMART targets. Talk about what you need in order to get to where you want or need to be, and be ready to listen, talk and learn. Adapt when needed – even if that means completely changing your intended destination. But don’t write off the learning that doesn’t lead to action – sharing that learning is all part of building the relational web that sustains us.
*Side note: if you are currently trying to think through a knotty problem, I’d love to help. Email me – firstname.lastname@example.org