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John Tomlinson

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Learning and Development Consultant

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SMART objectives can be really DUMB


How many people and organisations suffer through the process of objective setting, insisting they be SMART, and yet feel like they’re an unnecessary evil that gets in the way of the day job?

SMART is one of those cases where the acronym is so good, it takes over the whole process.

Of course objectives must be Specific and Measurable, although being measurable means that they have to be specific anyway. Objectives should ideally be Agreed, always Realistic, and adding Time-bound at the end is absolutely crucial – there has to be a deadline (I'm using the definition of SMART from MindTools).

In other words, being specific about what you want and when you want it.

The problem is that it doesn't often work out that way.

More DUMB than SMART

In the rush to deliver a set of challenging SMART objectives by the deadline set by the HR department, carts and horses get put in all sorts of pragmatically necessary orders to allow the objectives to be set in time and let people get on with their day jobs.

In many jobs, objectives sit separately from that day job and are just stuff to do that fits the SMART acronym rather than stuff that fits the organisation’s lofty strategic goals or the industry sector’s key success factors.

I call these DUMB objectives: Disconnected, Unimportant, Measurable and Boring.

So don't be DUMB, and forget SMART, and think CMV instead!

OK, that's not a catchy acronym, but despite that drawback, it still contains some serious wisdom: objectives should be Challenging and Motivational for the employee, and add Value to the organisation.

If you're ticking those three boxes, then you've cracked it - although it still needs to be measurable.

Laurel and Hardy

What is an objective

An objective should be the big chunks of your job expressed as a measurable deliverable.

All of your objectives added together should be roughly equal to the way you contribute to the organisation.

Here are 8 ways to get content for objectives:

  • The job description: This is usually written as a series of responsibilities, rather than deliverables. Turn it into big chunky stuff that needs delivering (by a stated date).
  • The previous appraisal: This may contain areas for improvement, areas of ambition, or strengths that the employee wants to make more of. Can any of them be turned into a challenging and motivating lump of work that would add value to the organisation?
  • The organisational and departmental strategy and business plans: some objective should cascade down from what the organisation is trying to achieve.
  • The organisational values and competences: it's not just what the organisation wants to achieve (that's 3 above), but how they want to achieve it. Is there something around getting better at living those values and competences?
  • Bottom up: some objectives cascade downwards, but often it's the people on the ground that really know what's going on and what needs to be improved. It's a good challenge to people to have at least one objective that is about the changes they'd like to see in their work environment.
  • Specific skills: if someone has specific responsibility for something like line management or budget control, you can create an objective out of that.
  • The Why?/How?: get new insight into why a job exists by asking why at least three or four times. Why do we have receptionists? To greet people when they arrive. Why do we greet people ..? To make them feel welcome and give a professional image (you soon get to the point when asking why becomes annoying, so then switch to How?). How could we make people feel welcome? How could we give the organisation a professional image for visitors? This often opens up new ways of thinking about the job.
  • Corporate contribution: is there something outside of the role that someone could do as part of a wider contribution to the organisation, such as sit on a staff committee or help out with a charity event?

Making it measurable

This is often thought of as the hard part, but it's really not so bad.

The important thing is to measure the right thing, not just the measurable thing.

Too often we measure just what we can, any numeric value we can find just to make it unambiguous and clear. This is silly. It's better to measure the right thing in a subjective and ambiguous way than measure the wrong thing just because it's measurable.

The key principles are:

  1. Can my actions directly impact the measure?
  2. Does the measure directly impact the outcome?

There are three components you can try to measure:

You have an input, leading to an output, which has an impact on the world we call an outcome.

The outcome is what you are trying to achieve and may be stated in the objective.

For example, I want to run an event for our suppliers (the input) so that they understand our logistical issues (the output) and so get better at timely deliveries (the outcome).

Sometimes it's possible to measure the outcome: do the deliveries become more timely? Can we isolate that to our actions? If yes, then we have a great measure.

If not, because either we can't realistically measure it (e.g. improved customer confidence might be too costly to measure) or we can't isolate the impact of our actions (e.g. was it really our actions that reduced the crime rate in our area?), we have to measure the output.

In this example, we can measure if the suppliers leave understanding our logistical issues. Did they get what we wanted them to get from the event?

If we can't measure this, then we must measure the input: did we run the event? This isn't a great measure because we're trusting to judgement that our decision to hold the event will have the right impact, but it's better to measure this than something unimportant but numeric, something disconnected from our actions, or something impossible to measure effectively.

Three ways to make things measurable

Using the above structure, there are three good ways to make things measurable:

  • They have an objective target, such as a budget, or a percentage customer satisfaction score. These are fine if and only if they are the right measure considering the desired outcome and the actions available to the job holder
  • Make it a project. Turn an objective into a project. It then becomes easy to measure: just deliver the project on time and on budget.
  • Some objectives are "behavioural", and they are not about discrete deliverables, but more about ways to behave generally, like "being more influential", or "being a better team player".

These are harder to measure, and that often means we don't bother making objectives out of them - but just because something's hard to measure is no reason not to do it!

And anyway, they're not that hard to measure.

I came across this when speaking to Garry Platt for the Trainer Tools podcast. In his consultancy work he has developed a system to turn this sort of fluffy woolly, but very worthwhile, type of objective into something very tangible and measurable.

You can listen to the podcast here, or read Garry's blog on the subject if you're not the sort for audio.

Objectives are not the only way of working

I don't think measurable objectives based around an annual performance appraisal cycle is necessarily the best way of working, but it is the most common.

Great performance management is about a relationship of trust between an employee and their boss. It's about them having clear and effective conversations, great feedback, and the relevant support and coaching. It's not about filling in forms and writing objectives to fit within word limits.

But we have to do it, so we might as well be ace at it.

2 Responses

  1. DUMB goals

    Interesting article!

    I call DUMB objectives: demand driven, unifying, motivational and broad.

    See my article here 

    The great thing about SMART objectives is that you can just manage through a spreadsheet – no need to actually talk to anyone!

    Fascinating how long ideas take to circulate. Now George Osborne is talking about productivity at last. Google UKBooster for an overnight way to double UK GDP growth!


  2. Thanks for the comment

    Thanks for your comment, and sorry not to have responded sooner. For some reason replies to posts don't end up in my inbox.

    In general performance management is disconnected from ideas like productivity and motivation, it's about box ticking and bureaucracy – but it needn't be!

    The thing is it takes great managers nor great forms to make it work, and that's much harder that designing a new system and insisting on measurable objectives.

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John Tomlinson

Learning and Development Consultant

Read more from John Tomlinson

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