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    14 Oct 19

    Are SMART goals really useful

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    Recently I found myself, like many others, in the position of trying to define my goals for the upcoming year. Albeit this was different to other organisations where they were set for me - my job was to accept. The requisite delay in goal setting was a secondary concern - as it has been every year, and in every company before.

    In the meantime I found myself asking questions like;

    • Is setting my own goals what I should be doing? Are they genuinely my goals, or the goals of the company?
    • Do SMART goals work for me? If so, why does it feel like they don’t?
    • What is the difference between a goal and an objective, and do they both need to be SMART?
    • What does it feel like they are cast in stone? why is so common, and acceptable to set them after they are complete?
    • Why should there be short-, medium- and long-term objectives when the review cycle is yearly?

    SMART Goals?

    I couldn’t be the only one asking myself these questions [every year]. Turns out that I am not! Hurrah! – but I appear to be part of a small minority that DO question the validity of SMART goals.

    My first question I will explore at some later time. My observation is that employees personal aspirations are not always in line with those of their employers.

    On my second question an MIT paper on when SMART goals are not so Smart addressed my second question directly;

    Simply put, for non-predictable or creative roles then SMART is not as applicable.

    BOOM! SMART is less applicable where organisational or customer demand could fundamentally change. A world where the funnel of work is dynamic, and may, or may not change, was not conducive to SMART goal setting since;

    change goals

    Businessman standing at the crossroad. Decision making concept.

    1. 1
      The work may can stop or change course suddenly as priorities change. To achieve an objective that achieves a goal that no longer exists is futile.
    2. 2
      Objectives that are at a level that is achievable and realistic, are not specific enough to be measurable.
    3. 3
      Measurable outcomes of work can lag the actual work by some significant, and unknown, time. Outcomes may negate, or aggregate with, other initiatives. These initiatives may also have outcomes that lag the work by varying amounts of time. Measurements, therefore, can not be isolated to any specific contributor.

    What does this mean. Well, timeliness is clearly important in the review cycle. This needs to be either at a frequency shorter than a typical initiative - an agile release, or a sprint? Or at the point at which the work is completed or a decision is made to stop - Kanban. Definitely not the (bi-)annual cycles that are common place. [I touch on possible reasons for this frequency later].

    Increased feedback frequency creates the opportunity to change objectives. When the objectives change, then new measurements put in place. However, the question remains; what measurements are truly valuable over these shorter timescales.

    It was some weeks later I happened across an article in MIT. It proposes FAST as an alternative to SMART. BUT, aside from one key point they are interchangeable [in my view].

    Frequently discussed. – OK, this addresses one of the concerns above. But does not distinguish it from SMART, it is possible to do reviews at whatever frequency you like. FAST makes it explicit

    Ambitious. – Combines achievable and realistic in a single term. It has connotations of a little more stretch in its meaning. Both variants would need to be time-bound to be meaningful. In this case SMART is more explicit.

    Specific. – Shared between FAST and SMART. The association with measurement is implicit in both SMART and FAST. Although SMART does make specific mention of it. In both cases the problems with measurement in the shorter review cycles remain the same.

    Transparent – The gamechanger, and worthy of further discussion

    With SMART everyone has goals, defined by either the individual or the organisation. But no-one else gets to see what they are;

    • Are they comparable to peers?
    • Do they correlate, or conflict with team or and corporate goals?
    • Does everyone agree that they are achievable, given the current backlog of work.

    Open Goals

    FAST allows people to talk about the goals. As a result it facilitates the increased frequency of feedback.

    With hidden goals, people are reliant on their own [lack of] ingenuity to come up with a plan to achieve their goals. When objectives are open, others can contribute to how to achieve them, or if they are realistic. Goal setting becomes a team sport. Ultimately, everyone ends up facing the same direction. They are all vested in the progress of everyone else, as an individual or as part of a team.

    If transparency facilitates frequency then what else is required? Relevancy! This too is a side effect of the conversations borne of transparency. Relevancy is the alignment of individual to team goals. Of team goals to business unit goals. Of business unit goals to corporate goals. It affects, and is affected by, the knowledge and capabilities of the individual and/or team. In turn, affecting the quality of their (or their teams) contribution to a higher goal. This higher goal will have a well-defined and persistent metric for measurement. The problem then becomes how to quantify the contribution, presumably as some percentage. I have no empirical evidence here.

    Next. Why does the review process currently happen on yearly timescales? Simple, its a result of corporate reporting on yearly timescales (annual reports). Organisational objectives change (or persist) on yearly cycles. This becomes an arbitrary trigger for 'goal setting' conversations. It needs to STOP! The corporate goals are whatever they are at whatever time you refer to them. The relevancy of individual goals is on the scale of the individual review period, NOT the organisational one.

    Annual reports also drive investment cycles, and the budgeting for the company. Part of which is the budget allocated to staff promotions. The historical legacy is that [in most organisations] this budget is spent all at one time - promotion rounds - when the chosen few are promoted. Performance review and promotion should not be linked with financial cycles, but with quality. [People] managers should be aware that the pot of money exists throughout the year. That it is available to remunerate employees capable of stepping up the ladder whenever they are able. If you have high quality staff that should be promoted then a pot of money should not be a constraint. The only thing to control is that the fund is not depleted too soon. If it is, then there there is a budget setting problem. Those in the people department have not recognised the quality of their own staff, and have budgeted incorrectly.


    Forget SMART, forget FAST. Focus on Transparency and Relevance

    Break the link between budget (cost) and promotions (quality).

    Slow moving organisational and financial cycles are only of benefit for shareholders, or the taxman. NOT your employees.

    If you have concerns with SMART goals, or problems setting effective goals for your employees. Come and speak to me about changing your approach to being Transparent and Relevant, and see UnlokQs Fractional CIO Offering for SMEs

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