Why SMART objective setting is not working

Managers have been advised to use SMART objective-setting at work for years. Although it’s an oft-used acronym we’ve lost sight of its true purpose, argues Paul Marsh.

SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound – is a well-known acronym for anyone creating key performance indicators, but does anyone actually write an objective with these five steps in mind?

Do they recite these five words in their head and sense-check it against the objective they have come up with? Almost never. It’s as if the word SMART came first and then someone tried to shoehorn five words into it to make a convenient acronym.

In our work on performance appraisals and objective-setting, one statistic above all others has been most surprising: 86% of objectives are not SMART. It is one of the hardest things to get right and managers need more help and guidance than the textbooks are giving. Just advising people to make sure the objective is SMART is not good enough.

Consider these popular objectives:

  • “Take responsibility for X”
  • “Lead the project”
  • “Be more proactive”
  • “Share best practice around Y”
  • “Raise your profile”.

Here’s the problem: these are subjective, full of corporate buzzwords and will therefore lead to a debate over whether they were achieved. This becomes even more of a problem if the objectives have been tied to reward or ratings.

The main problem is that, as currently written, they are activities and the individual can just say “I’ve done that” for each of them. Obviously, objectives with a monetary target next to them do not have this problem as, generally speaking, they are not subjective – but many of our objectives are rightly non-financial. So, what should we do?

Let’s focus on a secret ingredient that can be injected into objective-setting efforts.

Activity: in the employee’s control
Result: cannot be guaranteed
Lead the project …on time, budget and with no more than two escalated issues monthly.
Take a proactive approach …so that you’re being prompted to take on tasks more than once a day.
Raise your profile …so that two of your ideas are included in another senior manager’s plan.
Attend training on …and pass a quick quiz on its content.

The left-hand side above could be described as activities; they also have subjective buzzwords like “lead” and “proactive” in them. However, at work people get a “well done”, a pat on the back, a pay rise or promotion when they do something that cannot be guaranteed.

Objectives must incorporate this jeopardy element. Kicking a football is an activity, scoring a goal is a result; writing a document is an activity, the document not having to be amended too much by others is a result. To make an objective more result-focused, the “cannot be guaranteed” test needs adding to give the employee something to aim for.

Television knows this. We watch home makeover programmes and challenges people have been set and we keep watching with anticipation to see what the outcome will be. Will they sort the garden in time? Will everyone be ready for opening night? Will he win that competition? It is this cannot-be-guaranteed jeopardy element that makes the result something to be congratulated.

Do we even need appraisal objectives?

Targets, goals and objectives exist in many places. They are in spreadsheets, emails, on whiteboards, added to to-do lists and captured as part of meeting action points. They are not all conveniently sitting within performance appraisal templates – yet this is apparently where we are supposed to capture the year’s objectives.

It is rare that managers add to these documents outside of appraisal meetings, quarterly check-ins etc so they do not represent the whole of an individual’s performance. It is also often the case that managers and employees struggle to come up with objectives so inevitably we get unhelpful objectives such as “Continue to build relationships with X this year”.

The solution is to identify the triggers required for an objective to be agreed. For example, one trigger might be where something in the role is not currently a habit for an individual to do and would ideally need to be so as the next stage of their development. The agreed objective then becomes a regular discussion and review point in one-to-ones towards its achievement.

We suggest identifying up to three specific triggers and managers should then ask themselves a monthly question: “Do any of these triggers apply when thinking about my direct report?”. If the answer is yes then they need to agree objectives – for as short as a month, as long as a year – that we can review regularly in our one-to-ones because they are worth deeper discussion and focus, not objectives for the sake of having them.

Paul Marsh

About Paul Marsh

Paul Marsh is founding director of training and consultancy business Lightbulb.

14 Responses to Why SMART objective setting is not working

  1. Avatar
    Kieran O'Donoghue 18 Jan 2019 at 2:45 pm #

    There are many examples of an acronyms that come first and relevant words are shoehorned in but you’re being harsh to say the same for SMART objectives. I agree that it is hard to make objectives SMART but that’s the point. If it was easy we wouldn’t be challenging our team members and continually looking to improve performance. Managers do need more support than is available in textbooks so send them on some training and don’t rely on their own intuition or experiences.
    Television uses non guarantee-able events because they need suspense in order to keep viewers viewing. If I’m setting an objective for a team member surely I can expect them to achieve it if the objective is SMART . If there’s a non guarantee-able element then I’m just asking them to do their best and I can’t hold them to account.
    I’m all for challenging common business practices but SMART is one of the good guys.

    • Avatar
      Paul 21 Oct 2020 at 12:43 am #

      You have somewhat missed the point there. SMART objectives are too narrow, too limiting, you absolutely do need a non guaranteed part as this provides the stretch without this, you are just completing tasks.

  2. Avatar
    John G Angeletta 18 Jan 2019 at 5:47 pm #

    Having studied/coached/written about selling, managing, recruiting and training for 4-decades I wholeheartedLy agree with Paul. I would add, however, that without a DREAM, setting any goal is merely wishful thinking. As Stephen R Covey (7 Habits …) lamented, “Wrong tree!!!”. A shared DREAM is THE only powerhouse behind the required activity that carries each individual ~ who makes up an ‘organisation’ ~ through challenging times. Then, How Much Of What By When ~ goal setting ~ has merit and can be agreed at every level throughout.

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    Bryan Edwards 19 Jan 2019 at 9:24 am #

    But the point Paul is that if managers were thinking of a tool like SMART they would avoid the wishy-washy examples of objectives that you mention in your article (be them very real examples ).

    The resultant objectives may not be SMART, however, it does encourage them to think a bit more at how they word/phrase their targets.

    My own view is that SMART is a utopia, but getting closer to SMART is better than no SMART at all

  4. Avatar
    June Summers Shaw 19 Jan 2019 at 5:47 pm #

    I always advise behavioural objectives and the defining question is, “how will I know it has happened?”. If you can’t answer the question, it is a poor objective.
    I agree though, the use of SMART is not enough unless the ” how will I know” bit is added.

  5. Avatar
    Phil O'Connor 23 Jan 2019 at 11:59 am #

    who should set the objective and why?

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    Rob Burlace 24 Jan 2019 at 7:06 pm #

    SMART: After I started learning about objective-setting and having ‘SMART’ thrust at me ad nausea, I began to see quite a few flaws in it. For instance: If something is not ‘achievable’ how can it be ‘realistic’? Am I alone in seeing the duplication there? That’s why I developed and now teach the CRAFT-T model.

    • Avatar
      Trevor 4 Feb 2019 at 3:55 pm #

      Rob, I agree that there is a duplication. I think the SMART version used in this article is a bit ‘tired’; a better version is to replace realistic with relevant/related or replace achievable with aligned.

    • Avatar
      Sorina 11 Apr 2020 at 11:36 am #

      What is CRAFT-T model? Is there any framework we can use?

  7. Avatar
    Theresa Coligan 25 Jan 2019 at 11:26 am #

    I personally believe the SMART acronym remains a useful benchmark against which to assess goal-setting. When working with my coachees we agree the goal, what success looks like by way of changes in thoughts, feelings and behaviours and then how we’ll measure that success which can be hard or soft measurements. So what success looks like makes it very specific, we have measurements in place from the outset, achievable for me is about the coachee having personal responsibility for the desired changes and re time-bound the coaching contract can create the time limit or the business imperatives drive the timescales. The only one I’d challenge is realistic. Sometimes clients have big ambitions and elements of it might be unrealistic eg timescales but rather then dampen their enthusiasm I’d rather support them in getting as far towards that goal as they possibly can and allow them to determine if, why or how it was unrealistic along the way.

  8. Avatar
    Jim Grant 5 Aug 2019 at 2:19 pm #

    I have never, in my entire professional life, EVER had a SINGLE objective set me that even remotely satisfied the SMART concept, despite EVERY one of my employers having SMART-related training and reminders by HR. I have worked for household names BTW. Every review has been a confused mush of subjectivity and ill-expressed opinion. It’s a particularly North American malaise as, ultimately, the employment environment favours dysfunctional leadership over badly-led employees. It’s a bit different in Europe however, because if you penalise or appraise someone badly and without basis, you can get your corporate ass handed you…

  9. Avatar
    Sorina 11 Apr 2020 at 11:36 am #

    What other models to set objectives are out there?

    • Avatar
      matthew 16 May 2020 at 4:42 pm #

      Sorina I see no has answered you I think you pose a good question.

  10. Avatar
    Michelle 24 Nov 2020 at 1:30 am #

    Speaking from the employee perspective?

    SMART (and other types of mandatory corporate goal setting) are terrible. Coming up with some new carrot to chase every quarter is exhausting for overworked employees (not to mention that it is demoralizing and frustration inducing when you are not a creative employee and trying to come up with any sort of goal on your own is impossible and you just want to be left to do your job, and not create more work for yourself when you already have enough to work on).

    Stop pushing this crap on us. Enough already. Just let us do our jobs and judge our worthiness for a raise based on things you can actually see- proactivity, production, quality of work, client happiness, etc. Stop putting the onus on us to do your jobs for you as managers. They pay you all the big bucks to figure out the big stuff. If I have something I wanna reach for, I’ll tell you.

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