Are SMART objectives smart?

SMART Objectives are a filter through which we see the reality of managementSMART 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

  • Devious
  • Unfair
  • Manipulative
  • Bizarre

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.

  1. Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write managements’ goals and objectives. Management Review, 70(11), 35–36. 

  2. Others before me have also defined DUMB Targets: See Evan Carmichael, DUMB Goals

The Importance of a Silo Mentality to Deliver Business Value

A silo mentality is one of the most evil things a manager can have. Is this really the case?

Two silos I designed for a South African concrete brick manufacturer.

A silo mentality is one of the evilest things that can happen to a manager. Well, that is what you are lead to believe when attending the average management workshop.

One of the first things people mention when asked what is wrong with their workplace is having a “silo mentality”. Organisational silos are evil, and everybody who tries to build one runs the risk of becoming a pariah. Personally, I think silos are inevitable and valuable—I designed some early in my career as shown in the picture above.

A silo mentality is so prevalent that a small vocabulary has built up around this phenomenon: ‘information silo’, ‘silo thinking’, ‘the silo effect’, ‘functional silo’ and so on. The language around removing silos is quite vigorous and evocative: silos need to be ‘demolished’, ‘blown up’ or ‘torn down’. Surely, any manager using this type of language is serious about his job!

This article proposes a more philosophical approach and gently deconstructs, not demolish or blow up, the concept of silo mentality to show that they are not as evil as many managers believe.

embrace silos to deliver value

There is no proper definition of what a silo mentality is. A recent paper suggests that people with silo mentality are mentally ill.1

Psychodynamically, silos represent the phallic characteristics of male dominance, submission and persecution. They are characterised by intra- and intergroup anxiety followed by the infantile and regressive defensive structures …

On a positive side, a functional silo is a vertically aligned team with experts in their respective fields. Silos shape expert knowledge communities that can reach consensus, make decisions and act efficiently and effectively. By embracing and nurturing functional silos, an agency’s expertise can flourish.2

Pointing at silos to identify why an organisation is not optimally functioning is a way to blame somebody else for your problems. Instead of wielding the silo, managers should practice some introspection and think about how they can improve communication with other experts in their organisation. Don’t blame somebody else for not wanting to cooperate with you, think of ways you can motivate them instead of using strong language and start demolishing, tearing down and blasting their silos.

  1. Cilliers, F., & Greyvenstein, H. (2012). The impact of silo mentality on team identity: An organisational case study. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 38(2), 1–9. 

  2. Paulson, J. (2010). Embrace silos to deliver value. DM News, 32(17), 32–32. 

Clear Your head—The Key to Getting Things Done

Clear Your head—The Key to Getting Things DonePreparation:

  1. Have pencil and paper ready.
  2. Make sure you’re in a quiet place without danger to be disturbed before reading on.

This is a simple yet powerful way to get all those plans and ideas that are buzzing around in your brain all day long under control. These thoughts are constantly distracting you, preventing you from making short- and long-term plans.

The truth is: they can’t help it, it’s you that haven’t decided anything about them that will make them keep nagging you. What you need is a reliable external system to get them out of your head.

One of these completely reliable systems is David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system. But it takes at least a month to read the book and start making this method our own. We don’t have that long right now.

There a huge issue with all those loose ends circling both in your head and heading your direction from the outside world. You will be reminded of the stupidest things at the least expected moment. Even worse: don’t do anything about them, and they will finally just disappear. Too bad, because while most ideas have no future value, some of them are real gems. One of them might even change the world. So make sure you do something with those gems! How? Read on!

Start Writing

Grab that pen and paper that have so patiently been waiting next to you. During the next ten minutes, you will start to write down literally everything that’s in your head. This exercise will range from small actions that need immediate attention up to big future projects whose impact you cannot yet even fathom. It doesn’t matter what it is, once it’s written down it will be out of your head. Things you might encounter:

  1. Cleaning up the backyard
  2. Find a good school for my kid
  3. Improve my job skills
  4. Learn how to use Prezi instead of Powerpoint for presentations
  5. Write an ebook about … (fill in your speciality)
  6. Update your daily administration
  7. Empty your e-mail inbox
  8. Prepare presentation for quarterly meeting next week
  9. Get XYZ project back on track with Isaac and Charlie
  10. And so on, and so on.

Don’t spend any time thinking about those weird things you’re jotting down. What you’re going to do with them later is irrelevant now. By the way, did you notice that most things on the list above, apart from items 6 and 7, are bigger things than just one action? In GTD-speak they’re called projects, all “desired outcomes that take more than one action to complete” or goals. Goals are good, but can not be acted on immediately. They need to be made more specific and normally follow the route from defining projects first and actions later.

Now start writing. Take your time and keep writing, until your head is empty. If ten minutes of frantic writing are not enough, hold on. Later you’ll thank yourself! OK, there we go, I’m waiting for you …

Ready? When everything went according to plan, you now have an impressive list in front of you. Full of actionable items, projects and the more fuzzy goals. With less than 30 points you either have an extremely laid back life or cheated. In the latter case: maybe write a little more? Until the number approaches 50 or even 100 you’re probably not done yet. This only works if your head is clear of every loose end you will know when you’re done.

What you have achieved now is that everything is in a trusted system outside your head. Now it comes down to the most important thing: doing something with this information. First look at things that can be done in one step: your actions. These go on an action list, to be done the moment you are ready for them. The rest of your items are either projects or goals. Put them on two separate lists, and keep them current..In the future, these lists make it easier for you to focus on what’s requiring your attention now (projects) and to check whether your actions are in line with where you’re heading in life and work.

Getting Thins Done—Bonus Tip

Overwhelmed by a huge project list? Do not shoot the messenger! 😉 this is all your stuff. Who says you are required to complete the entire list? Take a critical look at the projects that don’t give energy and that you can eliminate without risk of getting in trouble. Be honest, there’s more to be deleted than you think. You are your judge.

A waste of time, all this list making? On the contrary! You have found a way to get those loose ends out of your head. This will give a tremendous amount of energy and focus. From now on you’re doing only things that are important to YOU. It’s hard to come up with a better time saver than that, I’d say.

Good luck clearing your head. Did it work? Share your experiences below.

Arjan Zuidhof is a guest author and efficiency coach based in the Netherlands.

Snakes and Corporate Ladders—A career simulation

The career path of a manager on her way to the boardroom is full of unexpected surprises. It might sometimes even feel like you are playing a game of Snakes & Ladders, the popular children’s board game. At the Lucid Manager, we have created the ultimate career simulation for a bit of fun and games. Who will get to the board room first?

Career Simulation

Will an MBA help fast-track your career or will your inability to multi-task hold you back from pin-stripe success? Download the pdf file to play our Snakes & Corporate Ladders career game and find out whether you will make it all the way to the board room. Play the game that resembles the trepidations of contemporary management.

Snakes and Corporate Ladders - a career simulation game

Managing ambiguity, do you resole uncertainty or seek opportunity?

Managing ambiguityA little while ago I was asked whether I was any good at managing ambiguity. My impulsive answer was that I prefer to resolve any ambiguity by analysing the situation. I responded to this question from the perspective of an engineer. My profession is based on using reason and logic to resolve any ambiguity inherent in reality. I did not realise at the time that this was the ‘wrong’ answer as I was expected to embrace uncertainty and seek opportunity, or something fuzzy like that.

Philosophically considered the world itself is ambiguous, e.g. light is simultaneously a wave and a particle, ethical judgements are based on cultural preferences, and the notion of absolute truth is philosophically untenable. However, our brains are wired to resolve any ambiguity. As soon as we observe light, it will collapse into either a wave or a particle, and within a given culture, ethical rules are absolute truths. Within a particular frame of reference, there can be only one truth. The most efficient tool to resolve uncertainty is logic. But reason itself has its limitations, and sometimes ambiguity remains no matter how much we analyse the situation. It is at these situations that intuition comes into play.

Management is a frame of reference in which ambiguity in most cases needs to be resolved. Customers don’t appreciate organisations that are ambiguous and require predictable quality. Uncertainty in processes also means business is not working efficiently as employees need to spend time assessing each situation to make a decision.

Management theorist David Wilkinson argues that leaders need to embrace ambiguity to initiate change. This statement is certainly true, but only to the extent that recognition of ambiguity is necessary to be able to generate possible outcomes and the manager’s ability to recognise the best solution. A preference for resolution of ambiguity does not preclude tolerance for vague situations.

Successfully managing a business is based on being able to make clear decisions. Without clear decisions, a company will not achieve its objectives, but without a recognition of managing ambiguity, a business can not evolve.

All the World’s a Stage — Deception in Management

All the World's a Stage — Deception in ManagementDeception is more common in everyday life in general and management than we care to admit. Shakespeare already understood this more than four centuries ago:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts (William Shakespeare, As you like it).

Professional social network site LinkedIn has conducted a survey to analyse buzzwords in user profiles. It seems that almost everybody on LinkedIn is creative and effective. These are, however, vague statements as creativity and effectiveness are not fixed states of mind but variables on a sliding scale.

The use of meaningless buzzwords is pandemic across the globe, although there are regional differences. Professionals from countries with a high level of individualism1 prefer to be creative, i.e. have individual and original ideas. While in Spain, a country with a high tendency towards uncertainty avoidance, prefer to be perceived as ‘managerial’. Most Italians are problem solvers, which is not surprising given the perpetual state of seeming disorder.

Deception in Management

Deception and perception management form an integral part of being human. All the Deception in Management is as common as deception in the world outside the office. Our self is not an innate property of the person, it is carefully constructed. Sociologist Erving Goffman uses a theatrical metaphor, inspired by Shakespeare’s lines opening this post. We use scripts, buy props and create backdrops for the roles we lay in society.

Professional life is, however, a special case as the selves we create in the workplace are mostly very different from that which we are in personal life. Goffman once wrote that deception is common among executives2

… blinding themselves and others to the fact that they hold their jobs partly because they look like executives, not because they can work like executives.

  1. Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

  2. Erving Goffman (1959), The presentation of self in everyday life, Anchor Books. 

Inbox triage: Six simple rules to achieve zero inbox

Inbox triage: Six simple rules to achieve zero inboxThis year it was forty years ago that the first e-mail was sent, starting a double-edged revolution in communication. Most of us are bombarded by messages each day, their inboxes overflowing into an uncontrollable torrent of information, action requests and trivial matters. An overflowing full in-box seriously undermines your effectiveness. A full inbox is stressful as you always are faced with a pile of stuff.

Productivity gurus such as David Allen have developed methods to help us deal with busy lives.1 Others, such as Merlin Mann, stated the Inbox Zero website.

The principle is simple. Just imagine you would never empty your physical mailbox have to search through piles of paper every time you need something. What would be the likelihood that bills get paid on time?

The best method to manage your in-box in inspired by battlefield medicine and the principles of triage. Triage is the process of determining the priority of treatment for the wounded based on the severity of their condition.

To be able to manage your inbox and achieve the goal of a zero inbox you should apply ruthless triage on every e-mail that comes across your accounts.

  • Archive: Anything that contains information for future reference – save the message somewhere outside your in-box.
  • Delegate: If you have the luxury of being able to delegate, do so.
  • Respond:
  • Defer: If it does not have to be done immediately, place the e-mail in your action list or calendar. Don’t use your inbox as an action list.
  • Do: If it takes less than a few minutes, just get it done.
  • Delete Anything that does not require further action should be removed from your inbox.

Six simple principles to minimise the amount of stuff in your e-mail accounts. Be ruthless like a battlefield surgeon. Our resources and time are limited and applying these simple principles a few times a day will help you keep your inbox clean.

  1. David Allen (2003). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. New York: Penguin. 

The subservient manager and the illusion of hierarchy

The Subservient managerOne evening at the dining table:1

Hannah: “What is your job mum?”

Olyvia: “I manage a team of dentists.”

Hannah: “So you drill holes in people’s teeth?”

Olyvia: “No, I am a manager”

Hannah: “What is that?”

Olyvia: “I make sure my coworkers have everything they need to do their best possible work.”

Management is the craft of achieving objectives vicariously, achievement through other people. The manager-employee relationship is de facto hierarchical. The idea of the manager to control workers was popularised by the Lucid Manager’s mortal enemy, Freddy Taylor. Simply put, the manager controls resources and staff follow instructions. This obvious fact is, however, a great misconception of the true nature of the manager-employee relationship.

When President Nixon met Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972, he asked his thoughts about the French revolution of 1789. Zhou Enlai reportedly considered the question for quite some time before finally answering: “It’s too soon to tell.”

Zhou Enlai was right. The ideals of the enlightenment of people as independent thinkers have after over two hundred years still not been fully realised. The struggle between Ancien Régime thinking and Enlightenment ideals can also be seen in management theory. The Taylor inspired scientific view of management versus a more human centred view is a recurring theme in management literature. At the Lucid Manager, we believe in the ideals of the enlightenment and proclaim a humanistic view on management.

The Subservient Manager

Managers are subservient to their employees

Managers are subservient to their employees. It is the subservient manager’s task to select the right people, make sure they are provided with sufficient resources, have the right knowledge and provide a safe working environment. The manager is also responsible for maintaining networks with external stakeholders. Every activity of the manager is aimed at enabling employees to get the work done effectively and efficiently. The manager makes sure that staff can provide value to customers. To refer to Chinese wisdom, Lao-Tzu wrote 2500 year ago:

The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.

  1. Based on a true story. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. 

What is the Philosopher’s Stone of Management?

What is the Philosopher's Stone of Management? - Management Alchemy

Managers and alchemists have a lot in common. Alchemists look for the philosopher’s stone to find wisdom while managers seek their inspiration in theories.

In management,  there is a huge disconnect between the popularity of theories and their empirical evidence. Popular theories usually suffer from a lack of empirical validation, while empirically supported theories published in peer-reviewed management journals remain obscure and unknown.

In a recent paper, Mata Alvesson and Jörgen Sandberg lament the field of management studies is stronger in producing rigour than in creating interesting and influential theories.1

The infamous Boston Consulting Group Matrix, which is taught to business students worldwide, has been called the “philosopher’s stone of the consulting business”. The BCG matrix has been used as a rationalisation to fire people or undertake a merger.2 The matrix legitimises action through symbolic references to the mystique of strategy.3

Humbug in management is, however, not a recent development. Management guru Chester Barnard expressed it in 1938 as such:4

I believe that a good deal of conflicting bunk is taught in these fields. This argues for improvement and development, not against teaching what can be taught. In the time of Newton, or even much later, a great deal of modern physics, and much that is fundamental in it, was not known, and for this reason perhaps a good deal of bunk was then taught in the field.

Management is historically speaking a very young field of endeavour. Formal studies of how people behave in a professional environment only started when Frederick Taylor analysed labourers logging pig-iron.

Management Alchemy

The philosopher’s stone of management

The natural sciences are much older and have developed a rigorous method that ensures their success. However, in the early day of the physical sciences, even prominent figures such as Isaac Newton spent a considerable amount of time on alchemy and other occult studies in an attempt to find the Philosopher’s Stone.

Whether this means that, several centuries from now, management theory is as successful as physics in controlling reality remains to be seen. Management, strategy and marketing are inherently social sciences, and people are not billiard balls whose trajectories can be predicted and controlled.

The Philosopher’s Stone of management is the art of understanding people. The key to understanding people lies not in the rigorous statistical analysis of questionnaires, but in the life experience of the manager.

  1. Alvesson, M. and Sandberg, J., 2011. Generating research questions through problematization. Academy of Management Review, 36, 247-271. 

  2. Owen, D., 1982. Those who can’t, consult. Harper’s, 265(1590), 8-17. 

  3. Astley, W.G., 1985. Administrative science as socially constructed truth. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30(4), pp.497–513. 

  4. Chester Barnard (1938) The Functions of the Executive. Harvard University Press 

The Magician Manager: Using deception in business

The Magician Manager: Using deception in businessEvery manager would love to have a wand and make things happen magically. Although this vision is only a dream, managers do have a lot in common with magicians. Both the manager and the magician aim to create the world different from the one we know. Both the manager and the magician construct a new reality; the magician uses the stage, and the manager uses the workplace to frame their performance. Another similarity is that many magicians carved out a market in the corporate sector by providing entertainment at Christmas parties and similar occasions. But the similarities don’t stop here.

As an amateur magician, I collect academic journal articles about conjuring and found two interesting papers exploring the similarities between management and magic.

The magician manager

… a wand and make things happen magically.

David Pollitt described how the management team of a large retailer was invited for a magic show as part of their professional development. Magicians follow rigid procedures to create the illusion of magic, and the management team were encouraged to do the same to achieve results. Magician Richard Pinner performed a Russian Roulette inspired trick to illustrate that in customer contact there is only one chance to get it right.1

Professor’s of management Joe Dobson and Terence Krell published a paper on how to use magic tricks to teach organisational behaviour.2 They use magic tricks in the classroom to show that withholding information, like a magician withholds the methods from spectators, can create a power difference. So-called forcing techniques commonly used by magicians are an illustration of the fact that our free will is more often than not bound and limited by the context in which we operate.

Perception is not reality

Although a magic wand is not a reliable management tool, these examples from the academic literature show that professionals can learn from magic as it provides valuable lessons in psychology.3 Most importantly the magician’s ability to distort reality is a reminder that our perception is fragile and that we should always find out the facts, rather than rely on perception. The biggest difference between a manager and a magician is that a magician manages perception to create the illusion of a new reality. Managers focusing on perception, in reality, will find that they are creating an illusion.

If you like to know more about magic tricks, read my book Perspectives on Magic.

  1. Pollitt, David (2006). ‘Communication campaign conjures up success for Homebase: Magician theme makes for a memorable launch of guides’, Human Resource Management International Digest 14(5): 38-39. doi: 10.1108/09670730610678271

  2. Krell, Terence C. and Dobson, Joseph J. (1999) The use of magic in teaching organisational behaviour. Journal of Management Education-23: 44-52. doi: 10.1177/105256299902300105

  3. K. Fatehi-Sedeh (1980) A card game as a teaching aid. Journal of Management Education 5(3): 57-60. doi: 10.1177/105256298000500316