SMART or DUMB objectives? A question posed by Stephen Walker of Motivation Matters.

A lot of management training has been done to drive operational performance improvement through the use of SMART objectives. Unfortunately this useful tool has been taken to extremes and become quite dangerous.

SMART objectives are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. Who could argue with that?

There was a great push by consultancy firms to get us to move to SMART objectives so we could manage people through the results on a spreadsheet or database. It made face to face communication less necessary, apparently, as results could be posted and reviews conducted remotely.

This cold numerate measurement is known as the tick-box culture. The measurement has become more important than the activity. Hospitals deliver health care to patients to achieve the tick box scores to satisfy their customer, the government, that pays the bills. The focus has been lost from the real world of actual deliverables to the media world of spin and manipulation of tick-box scores.

What I argue against is the loss of operational performance. The tick-box scores are out of kilter with reality.

And there is worse to reveal.

When you undertake a strategic or tactical plan you make assumptions about the world and prepare objectives to achieve success.

The system of SMART objectives is set up to drive staff and organisation behaviour to achieve the plan.

The military has a saying that the greatest battle plan will never survive first contact with the enemy. It’s the same with an organisation’s plans and reality.

The result is an organisation driven and achieving its tick-box targets while real world performance is steadily deviating from the success recorded by the SMART objective scores.

What is needed is a system of DUMB objectives: demand driven, unifying, motivational and broad.

DUMB objectives are changed to suit the demand today, this week, this month.

They pull the organisation together ensuring that as a whole, performance is improved today, tomorrow, next week, next month.

They need to be “visible” to be motivating. People need to feel they have done that pile of paperwork, laid that brick wall or handled that many flights today.

Finally they need to be broad. Sometimes the original plans and objectives are quickly out of date and other challenges arise which require the organisation’s response. They must be capable of adapting to what is needed rather than what is being measured through SMART objectives.

DUMB objectives require more management effort. You can’t set a DUMB objective and forget it like you can a SMART one. You have to go and see and talk to people. You have to manage and even show some leadership.

DUMB objectives must be pulled and pushed to match the real world demand today or tomorrow.

The organisation’s people will respond with a performance to match the demand when the motivating element is done correctly.

The routine measurements of performance take place in the background to monitor the organisation’s development.

DUMB beats SMART any day!

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2 thoughts on “SMART or DUMB objectives? A question posed by Stephen Walker of Motivation Matters.

  1. Hello Stephen. Interesting read, however I beg to differ on two counts:
    Firstly, the definition of SMART, as specific, measurable, AGREED, realistic and timed. This is because I believe realistic needs to be both to the organisation and the individual (thereby achievable) and therefore targets should be negotiated, so agreed and not set.

    Secondly, why can’t dumb targets be smart? The measure could be a dynamic measure, e.g. linked to the company objectives, for example, complaints as a percentage or number of orders rather than a fixed number of complaints ; or number of visits to the organisation for non sales organisations; telephone sales value or number of orders as a percentage of catalogues requested, sales turnover for a new campaign to be an agreed multiple of marketing spend for the campaign, web sales as a percentage of hits to website or sales turnover for new manufactured product to be a proportion of the development cost in year 2? The measure could be dynamic allowing it to change to support a multiplication of improved performance.

    The specific could refer to organisation values, current organisation challenges; include agreed behaviours, attributes or competencies, thereby relating a unifying purpose to their individual target.

    The motivational should be covered by the agreed. The individual should decide how to make their target visible. This is where the coaching skills of their line manager come into the fore.

    The timed should ensure that targets are broad and can therefore be of an appropriate length; they do not need to last a year – what’s wrong with next week, next month, next quarter, once turnover reaches a certain level, once the web site has achieved a defined number of hits, once the country GDP reaches a pre determined level, once the value of the pound to the dollar or euro is above or below a pre determined level etc?

    What I am trying to say is do not forget the definition of SMART (vigorous, lively, dynamic, clever, quick, ingenious, current trend) and rely on it purely as an acronym. So smart can remain, and it can allow for DUMB in its makeup.

    • Hello Hazel,

      Thank you for your excellent comment.

      Yes I agree, targets should be set by agreement to ensure the resources, training, time and so on is sufficient for likely success. Sometimes, when performance is a matter of dispute, targets would have to be set after doing everything to provide all necessary resources.

      Your second point touches directly on the issue. Targets do need to be dynamic to react to changes in the real world.

      Let me point to two examples.

      RBS and Lloyds TSB are now looking at the role their targets and bonuses played in building up high risk business.

      Targets and big bonuses create the conditions for people to game the system, ignoring the big picture. The cycle of targets and bonuses feeds on itself as proof that the bonuses drive people to perform!

      A call centre operates a bonus scheme with computer based recording of call outcomes, set toward targets with substantial bonus payments being possible. All perfectly good SMART objectives.

      But the targets are changed daily and sometimes retrospectively if people earnt too much bonus. Imagine what that does to people’s commitment.

      Have you ever had a call centre disconnect your call when you explain what you want? Hard luck – what you wanted didn’t help reach the target so why take the call? Is that the behaviour that is really wanted?

      You work in an excellent company Hazel. I don’t believe that a few dozen people wouldn’t step up and demand a review if you were targetting and bonusing behaviour at odds with real world requirements. Not everyone is fortunate to have your open receptive management and engaged workforce.

      I don’t know if you have ever read the children’s book “The Faraway Tree” by Enid Blyton. It is about different lands that you reach by climbing the tree. The “physical” rules are different in each land.

      Similarly in an organisation with an engaging management and engaged people, things that just wouldn’t work in other less inspired organisations, work for them. That is the benefit of well motivated people – new things, new outcomes, new ways of working are possible.

      What may be SMART for you may have to be DUMB for others to stop people sticking to out-dated plans.

      So yes I agree with your second point too – but only in the best innovative, well managed and staffed organisations!

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