Judging by how they’re discussed, you would think that SMART objectives (which is to say, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound goals) are ubiquitous.

They’re mentioned so frequently that you hardly need to explain what SMART stands for any more. For many, they seem to be a solution for creating workflow systems that pretty much manage themselves.

However, when it comes to practice, they’re talked about far more than they are actually used and, to me, sound somewhat dated.

Some recent research made me think about how we use such terms, and often find them reassuring, but rarely evaluate their efficacy. 

Losing trust?

In a poll of 3,000 staff, employee engagement specialists Sodexo Engage found that managers set specific goals for just one in five (21%) of UK workers.

Some 38% of the sample had never had any specific goals or targets set for them at all, while 41% said that their managers had provided them with only “loose” goals.

According to Sodexo Engage director of incentive Iain Thomson, the research showed that managers risk losing the respect and trust of their teams unless they take a more hands-on approach. He said: “We know people work best when they’re given goals to achieve.

“Working with employees to set SMART goals will help keep them motivated and give them a clear understanding of their role in the team.”

I’m not so sure about this. I think that perhaps there’s something about SMART goals that doesn’t engage the imagination.

Constant feedback

Surely, a broader expectation of i) what the job’s about, ii) what doing it well looks like and iii) how the job aligns with the organisation’s higher purpose is a much better framework for delivering outcomes?

Serious problems can arise in targets-based management with miscommunication and/or misunderstanding. And a target that has been imposed upon you is nowhere near as empowering or motivating as one that you’ve set for yourself.

Where I think managers have a significant leadership goal is in providing feedback about performance on a constant basis – not just in quarterly, six-monthly or annual increments.

They can certainly praise and encourage. They can lead by example, in terms of talking about their own goals or targets and how they’re going to achieve them.

But as an ethos, ‘management by objectives’ (MBO) was at its most popular in the 1970s.

Broader purpose

Back then, the idea was that, if everyone had objectives that were cascaded through the firm and backed with performance-related pay schemes, everyone would get behind them and it would be ‘job done’ in terms of delivering outcomes.

However, you don’t really hear that much about MBO anymore. And that’s because – as Peter Drucker himself recognised – it only works when you are clear about what the objectives are, unlikely in uncertain and volatile times.

There’s a much bigger picture that we need to get to grips with in order to encourage people to deliver. Micro-measures alone are not the solution.

There are many aspects of an individual’s job that don’t readily lend themselves to goals or targets. They include attitude, behaviour towards colleagues – and one that is meant to be a huge, primary signifier of engagement: going the extra mile. What does a ‘going-the-extra-mile target’ actually look like?

The reality is that micro-targets can’t possibly encompass the totality of someone’s job.

With that in mind, conveying a broader purpose and how the individual contributes to it – together with a sense of what good looks like and the appropriate levels of encouragement – will deliver overall better performance.

But when we really need a mnemonic acronym, Adam Kreek’s CLEAR goals or Mark Murphy’s HARD goals are probably more relevant today.

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