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The Way I See It… What’s So Clever About SMART Goals?


TeachingJohn Driscoll, Head of Coaching at Dove Nest Group, believes that SMART objectives are not so clever after-all and proposes a new SHABBY approach to goal setting.

For a generation now, we have been led to believe that we have to be SMART when setting goals and objectives. From performance appraisals to executive coaching, the acronym has become synonymous with best practice. But is SMART really best? Do we need to be SMART at all? In just the same way that enlightened organisations allow employees to throw off the strictures of formal business suits on “dress-down Fridays”, the time has come to turn the tide on SMART – let’s get SHABBY.

What is SMART?
Before exploring in detail what’s involved in SHABBY, it’s worth seeing just what a mess SMART has got into in recent years. Whilst most HR professionals will be able to reel off five words to make up the acronym, there are now huge variations. Take the “A” for example. In your version of SMART, is it Achievable, Agreed, Acceptable, Accountable, Actionable or Assignable? The same goes for all the other letters.

Research by Robert S Rubin of St Louis University (published in the Industrial-Organizational Psychologist*) suggests that there are at least 22,800 permutations of SMART. Even if you ignore all the semantic relatives, the number of permutations is still over 2500. Far from having a uniformity of meaning, we now face the danger for novice SMART users to miss out on objective setting success by using non-authentic variations of the grail.

A new acronym
The concept of SHABBY goal setting was initiated recently during a conversation between business coaches at a seminar in Oxford. Like all the best ideas, it was quickly developed and immediately hit the “Why didn’t someone think of this before?” spot. So, what does it stand for?

S subject
H headline
A actions
BB business benefits
Y Yes ?

The Subject needs no further explanation. In a written performance review or a coaching record document, this is simply the title. In the best tradition of journalism, the Headline tells the story in a single, short sentence. The Actions are the detailed practical steps the participant will put in place to ensure they reach the goal.

The Business Benefits provide the rationale. Within performance coaching, for example, there’s a view that any objective without robust business benefits should be discarded or at least delayed until higher priorities are met. Finally, the Yes? Is both a reality check and a commitment to carry out the goal.

From experience, I can confirm that SHABBY objective setting is both practical and well-received by participants. It’s easily introduced by three questions: What are you going to do? How will that benefit you / the organisation? Will you do it? Here’s a more detailed recent example for one manager I’ve been coaching.

Subject: Time management
Headline: Delegate as many routine tasks as practical
Actions: 1. Encourage admin assistant to take on creative design and production work associated with one project.
2. Take colleagues to meetings with external clients
Business Benefits: 1A. Bright, enthusiastic admin assistant now feels more involved, enjoys the responsibility, is no longer looking elsewhere for work
1B. Earlier plan to engage design consultants now ditched,
saving company heavy external costs
2A. Good rapport built between external clients and other members of
staff, reducing risks associated with sole point of contact
2B. More client projects can be handled simultaneously, increasing
2C. Junior colleagues have greater exposure to clients in a “safe” setting,
increasing their confidence for future development
3. Manager’s time freed for prospecting of new business, rather than account management of existing clients.
Yes? After thinking through the various risk factors and discussing them with all concerned, the manager decided there was no reason not to implement the objective, and plenty of tangible business benefits, so that’s exactly what he did.

Join us! Throw off the shackles of conforming to SMART and let’s get SHABBY for a refreshing change. You don’t even have to worry about the time factor. Some people say that the T is the critical bit of SMART, because it provides the discipline to force you into action. If you’re committed to a real SHABBY goal and answer yes to the reality check you won’t need the artificial constraints of timelines, you’ll simply get on with it.

Who knows? SHABBY objective setting could soon become an integral part of the HR and training toolbox and still be in use a generation from now.

* The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, Vol 39 No 4


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