SMART objectives, SMART goals and SMART targets – A Controversial View

How to Write Objectives that Work

SMART objectives, is it worth the bother?


Are your objectives and goals SMART? Is that what you should be worrying about? Objectives can be SMART without being right. Before I go through a definition of SMART, here’s a typical example of the problem.

Alan emailed me from a US government department in a panic because he had to have SMART objectives for the end of the week.


He sent me some of them through, and I think one thing you and I can agree on (well, you could if you could see them) was that they weren’t SMART. As one famous physicist once put it (when describing some paper his colleague had submitted); ‘It’s not right, it’s not even wrong…’


So first, what are SMART objectives?


Usually it’s an acronym for how your objectives should be along these lines:

    •    Specific
    •    Measurable
    •    Achievable
    •    Realistic/Relevant
    •    Time-Bounded

I’m going to disagree with some of that. You see, I could have gone through Alan’s objectives and made them SMART. These days, having written literally thousands of objectives for hundreds of organizations, I can usually work out what someone really means and turn the objectives into something SMART.


But over the years I’ve learned that being SMART is not the most important thing about objectives. Yes, you did read that right.


What is most important about objectives


Before you go anywhere near SMART, you have to make sure that the objectives are talking about the right things. This goes back to what objectives are really there for. Not many people know this.


Objectives are there so that you know what you personally have to achieve in order for your organization to achieve its goals.


That’s it.


Now let’s look at each component of SMART.




Yes, I agree completely. Vague objectives are the enemy of achievement and of any effective organization. They are the camouflage behind which poorly skilled managers hide. They imagine people won’t know they aren’t achieving because no one can really understand what they are supposed to be doing.




Absolutely. But you don’t really need a separate measure. Many organisations have this separate measures column in their performance planning/appraisals documentation. In my view that encourages people to write sloppy objectives. A well-written objective needs no separate measure.


Get to Ealing by 8pm on Sunday evening. That’s my objective as I write this eZine. What separate measure do I need? If I did it as a separate measure I might end up putting things like:
 Travel on the train for 2 hours.
 Drive my car to the station.


There’s no need if the objective is written properly.




No, No, No. It is not the job of objectives to be achievable. It’s our job to work out how to achieve them.


If you’ve ever seen the film Apollo 13 you’ll remember that the crew was going to be poisoned by carbon dioxide. A team was given the objective of finding a way to get rid of it with the materials the crew had to hand. They didn’t moan about the objective not being ‘achievable’. They got on and found a way.


Objectives are there to tell you what you need to achieve.


Let’s imagine you need a life-saving operation. Your surgeon has the objective:
Ensure 80% of my patients survive the operation.


He or she has this because it’s achievable. No one expects every patient to survive. The surgeon operates on 100 people every year. All have survived so far. And you are number 81.


So it doesn’t matter if you don’t survive. The surgeon’s objectives will still be achieved.
The thing is, you still want the surgeon to have the objective that you survive the operation, no matter how bad the odds are.


The real problem here is when companies penalize people for failing to achieve tough objectives. Which surgeon do you want, the one who achieved 80% (with just 80 survivals) or the one who failed to achieve 100% (with 98 survivals)?




Rubbish. Who put that in there? I imagine it was just there to make up the word ‘SMART’. Sometimes unrealistic things are what need to achieve. So you have to work out how to do them.


The other option – which I prefer:




This isn’t a very good way of putting it but if by ‘relevant’ we mean ‘aligned’ then that’s fine. In my view it’s the most important part of an objective, that it is aligned with the top goals of the organization.



That’s why I couldn’t really help Alan. I didn’t know what the top goals of his organisation were or his immediate manger (nor did he). So I didn’t know what his objectives should be. Everyone should know and understand the goals of their organisation and their responsibilities in achieving those goals. How else can you work out what your objectives are?




Yes. Absolutely. I once worked with a project team implementing a business-critical project. Not one of them knew what the deadline was. They each had completely different understandings of the date by which the new procedures had to be in place. As you can imagine, that made planning a bit fraught.


So there we have it. SMART is not dead, but you need to be careful not to focus too strongly on just making your objectives SMART. You need to make sure that you know exactly what you need to achieve before you start talking about SMART.



More Help with Objectives


If you would like to know more about the whole process and improve your skill, you can get a recording of my teleseminar on this subject. It includes all the materials and a complete transcript.


Objectives Teleseminar Recording and Materials


Here are the specific topics you will hear in this teleseminar:

    •    Coaching one of the participants through setting some very difficult objectives
    •    Setting objectives for production test people.
    •    Measuring individual’s performance in terms of productivity.
    •    Measuring performance and the effectiveness of what people are doing
    •    Objectives for improvement
    •    Stretch objectives
    •    Objectives like ‘getting papers published’
    •    Cascading objectives
    •    How objectives link with values
    •    The difference between goals and objectives
    •    What performance indicators are
    •    Dealing with objectives that you don’t have control over
    •    How to check you have got your objectives right
    •    Exceeding objectives
    •    Exceeding expectations
    •    Should you include ‘Business as usual’ in your objectives?


What you get:

    •    The recording of the teleseminar
    •    Materials to download
    •    A complete transcript of the teleseminar


Get your recording here

How do you measure success? – A tip for your objectives in 2014


The sale of Royal Mail

Evan Davis, presenter on the Today Program, BBC Radio 4, interviewed Michael Fallon,

Selling Royal Mail

Selling Royal Mail

Minister for Business and Enterprise about the recent sale of Royal Mail. Evan was concerned about the fact that the share price as gone up from £3.30/share to £5.61 in the three months since the floatation, possibly indicating that the shares were somewhat undervalued and the sale has cost the Exchequer about £1.4bn.



Evan asks Michael Fallon for his assessment of the sale, 3 months on:


“What’s your conclusion as you look back?”


Here’s Michael Fallon’s response:


“Well, it was a successful sale. You expect successful IPOs to go to a premium after they’ve been launched and that’s been no surprise throughout most of last year that shares that were launched on the stock exchange did go up in value, nobody’s lost anything here, on the contrary; we’ve gained.”


Evan was clearly completely perplexed at this point:


“What, what, what, what, what?”


Then he asked almost in tones of disbelief:


“You think it was a successful sale?”



Of course it turned out that Fallon’s definition of ‘success’ was the fact that they had managed to sell it at all.




This is often a problem with goals and objectives


Your idea of what success means is different to that of your manager.




Another poor sales example


It reminded me of a situation I witnessed during my first year in a real job. The company I worked for was part of a large group and we desperately needed to hit our sales target. There were just four weeks to go. Our sales team went all out selling everything they could. The good news was they had a record month.


The bad news was that it was achieved by selling everything at a loss.



What was the objective?


I wonder if we will ever know what the true objective of the sale of the Royal Mail was. It would seem that it wasn’t to get a good price for it. Sadly, I also suspect it wasn’t to ensure that we here in the UK all have a reliable postal service that meets our requirements.




The real objective


The trouble is, when you don’t know what the real objective was, you can’t help but get a little suspicious. And if you don’t know how to measure the success of your own objectives, how can you make sure you will be successful.




Ask this question


Here’s a great question you can use either as a manager or employee:


If you are the manager, ask your team member:


How will you know you have been successful in achieving this objective?


If you are the team member ask your manager:


How will you know I have been successful in this objective?




My suggestion is that you get that agreed right at the beginning and write it down. It will make things so much easier at the end of the year.


What’s a Handbag got to do with Objectives?


Here’s a story of how an employee’s bad (non SMART) objectives led to me losing a very nice handbag.


It’s a story of the consequences of badly-written objectives for your customers and for you.


Many years ago I had a wonderful handbag. It was lovely soft leather in a chestnut colour. It had no strap (one of the problems as you’ll see later) and fitted perfectly into my duffel coat pocket.




A Handbag


A nice bag, but still not as good as my old clutch handbag or the one that was stolen

A nice bag, but still not as good as my old clutch handbag or the one that was stolen

This was back in the early fourteenth century during my student days when I wore a duffel coat quite a lot.


I worked in Cornwall over the summer and on a Saturday went into Newquay where I absent-mindedly left my bag on the counter of a busy chemist’s shop. And yes, sometimes, at the height of summer in Cornwall, it is necessary to wear a duffel coat.


When I realised what had happened half an hour later I dashed back to the shop and there was my bag, sat there when I had left it with everything still inside.



The Lost Bag Again


The next summer I worked on the Isle of Mann. This time I left the bag in a phone box (we had no mobile phones in those days and phone boxes were quite common). Later that day I had a call from the police asking for my home address and other details. They had the bag. Some kind person had handed it in. Needless to say, everything was there, all present and correct.



And Again


The third time I lost the bag, I left it in a car I’d been hitching a ride in. The bag had fallen out of my pocket. I’d had quite an interesting chat with the driver and knew he was on his way to a conference at a university.


So I hitched over there. Using my persuasive skills I managed to convince the security guard that I should be allowed into the hall where the evening banquet was taking place, though I was hardly dressed for the event.


A man at the top table in DJ and bow tie addressed the conference: ‘Does anyone remember giving this young lady a lift earlier today.’ He could hardly hide his amusement.
There was my kind chauffeur near the front. ‘I’ve got your bag’ he said, and produced my driving licence. He’d been planning to search me out using directory enquiries. (A service that used to be free in those days…)


Again, nothing in my bag had been stolen.



The Stolen Bag


Now let’s move along to recent history. Over Easter, my family and I went to Paris, a city I love. On our last day the flight was late afternoon and we needed to check out of our room and leave our bags with the hotel. This is an arrangement that most hotels make.
So we left our four bags. Three to be checked in and one, my favourite ‘Kipling’ bag that I used for taking in the cabin. It was orange and big enough to contain my laptop and lots of other things but small enough to go in the cabin.


It also had five separate pockets and placed for pens and mobile phones. For a person who loves bags, it was about the best designed of that genre it has ever been my pleasure to own.


When we returned, the other three bags were there, but my favourite bag had gone. The woman who had been at the desk the whole time, in full view of the bag, denied any responsibility for the situation. She accused us of only having had three bags.


I was furious. She wouldn’t call the police or do anything at all to help. I wrote to the travel agents and still we have had no joy or even an apology.


Was it her fault? Initially I thought it was. But on reflection, I wonder if she had the right objectives and if they were SMART. Had anyone made it clear to her what she was there to achieve? What did she understand about her responsibilities? Clearly very little, judging from my experience.


I suspect no one had explained it or told her how the process for making sure that people only picked up their bags and not my lovely bag as well.


I never expected her to risk the wrath of an armed robber with a shotgun to keep my bag safe, but I did expect her to check people only retrieved their own bags.


So, it seems to me ironic that on three occasions, when no one was being paid to look after my bag, people went out of their way to make sure I got it back, but when someone was being paid, they didn’t.


Was I lucky those first three times? I think most people are basically honest. But when people are badly managed, they do not perform well. That’s what performance management is all about.


Apparently recently in France there was a big campaign to encourage waiters to treat tourists with more respect. Let’s hope next year this is extended to receptionists and to hotel managers so that they can give their staff clearer objectives.


And just in case you are wondering, after a long and happy but eventful life, the chestnut handbag met its end through a leaky jar of pickled herrings, not through being lost again.



Get your 2014 objectives right



Getting your objectives right is a great way to start off a new year.



People often have good intentions when they set objectives, but then fall into some of the easy traps that make objectives useless or, even worse, dangerous.


Anthony Fairweather, poet, performer and admin expert

Anthony Fairweather, poet, performer and admin expert


To help you get yours right, Anthony Fairweather has composed a poem:“Objectively Speaking”, especially for you. He is fast becoming our resident comedy poet. In a spirit of humour, he has included key tips for getting your objectives right.



You will also hear a few examples of really bad objectives that may sound familiar to you and a list of words you must avoid in objectives.



Do take a few moments to listen to it to get your tips and start off your New Year with a smile.



Wishing you a very happy, successful and prosperous New Year