SMART objectives are a seemingly immutable law in management, originally formulated by George Doran in 1981.1 We are told in management seminars that objectives should be, in the words of Doran, Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time-related. Many varieties have spawned from the minds of managers across geography and time, each focusing on slightly different aspects of the meme. There is no science behind this, as is the case with most popular management memes. The original meme has evolved through successive mutations.
Are SMART Objectives smart?
“What you measure is what you get…”
The term Specific can also be written as: ‘stretching’ or ‘simple’; measurable has mutated into ‘meaningful’, ‘motivational’ and ‘manageable’, Assignable is in most cases turned into ‘achievable’, which is the same as being realistic. Realistic in turn has morphed into ‘relevant’ or ‘resource-based’ and lastly ‘time-related’ has stood the test of time and has not changed much in the various mutations of the original definition. Some have even extended the mnemonic and defined SMARTER objectives.
Many managers seem to struggle with defining SMART objectives, evidenced by the multitude of websites and magazine articles devoted to this topic. The meme—I dare not call it a theory as there is no real research into the effectiveness of this popular business tool—is driven by the idea that we can only manage what we can measure. This approach is driven by the often cited words of former General Electric CEO Jack Welch: “What you measure is what you get…”.
I propose that organisations start using DUMB targets:2
Any list of adjectives that can remotely be related to management will do. Just Google “adjectives starting with …” and create your acronym. If you find a good one, please add it to the comments box.
Are SMART Objectives smart?
“Too often we measure everything and understand nothing”
Not everything activity in an organisation is measurable and using SMART targets often obfuscates the fact that business is about human interaction and can not always be placed into a quantitative straight-jacket. How can you specify a SMART target for having empathy for customers? How do you define a measurable objective for having a genuine smile? There is an inherent incompleteness in relying on quantitative measures when managing an organisation that deals with people and people are the very cornerstone of every organisation. It is undeniable that measurement is essential in business. Although quantitative performance measurement is a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient condition for holistic performance measurement. To understand their business, managers must take the responsibility of venturing beyond the figures and dashboard displays.