SMART goals — Specific, Measurable, Achievable (or ‘Agreed’), Realistic and Timed — are what is urged on corporate staff and voluntary planners across the world. Any step on a project plan should be SMART. However, in this article, I argue that SMART does not make for good or useful goals, just goals that are formatted in a particular way. Instead, I want to put forward a new paradigm — CLEVER goals.
Everyone has their SMART moment. You’re fairly junior in a role, your manager, boss, team leader or whatever sends you away to put together a plan. You come back with something you think is excellent, and they say ‘these goals aren’t SMART’. They expect you to know what ‘SMART’ is, and, when you evidently don’t, they explain it to you in a way that makes you smart: the way that SMART is transmitted is often humiliating.
It’s for this reason that SMART is very rarely challenged. It’s often communicated by shame. In fact, in my 25+ years career, I’ve only ever heard SMART challenged once. More on this in a moment.
First, though, why shouldn’t we go SMART? In Strategy Safari, Henry Mintzberg outlines ten schools of strategy which he has identified across all academic strategy literature from Sun Tzu onwards. The book is well worth reading. The problem with SMART is that this format for goals fits with the Planning school, which many people, especially those from a project management background, believe to be the only school. If you want to build a house, purchase a model railway or plan a wedding, then the Planning school can be very helpful. Working backwards from the goal, you identify what steps must be taken to achieve it, what resources are required, what the timescales are, and then you plan it step by step. Each step must be SMART.
However, if you want to build the Channel Tunnel, win an election, or persuade someone to marry you, then the Planning school frequently fails to deliver. For the Channel Tunnel, which was completed but went billions of pounds over budget, the problem was that the steps were incompletely understood because it had never been done before. For winning an election, the fact that your steps are specific, measurable, agreed, realistic and timed does not guarantee that the electors will eventually vote for you. For asking someone to marry you, there really is just one step, and you can’t know if it’s agreed until you are committed to the project. What’s more, no matter how SMART you make it, it doesn’t actually help you to ask the question.
Here’s a Dilbert-esque trick you can try if you’re coming up for your annual assessment (or whatever your organisation calls it) and struggling to fill in all the boxes. Seriously, you shouldn’t try this, but, having conducted numerous reviews of this kind, I can guarantee it would work. If you find that you can’t identify the things which your review says you need to identify, especially if it uses the word SMART, then simply look at the things you’ve done, even if they weren’t very important to what your job actually was about, and write them back into last year’s plan in the SMART format. Your reviewer will not bother to check back to see if these really were agreed goals, but they probably will check with the SMART format.
The base problem with SMART is that it tells you a format for goals, but not whether these are the right goals. It has no component for evaluating whether the goal is valuable, useful, strategic or something which builds your organisation’s capacity for the future, or destroys it. A SMART goal can deplete resources, which can be as tangible as money or as intangible as good will, which won’t be replaced.
So, back to the one time that I saw SMART challenged. It was challenged by me, and it was the moment that I got really cross with the ‘transmission by humiliation’ that SMART often relies on.
I was working with a board of community volunteers, which was associated with (though not accountable to) a public sector networking board. The community volunteers had come up, over a period of six months, with a set of goals which had been carefully negotiated among them and which would — they believed, and I agreed with them — deliver some real benefits to the community. The public sector networking board had just appointed a deputy chief-executive, and he came along to their final meeting in the process — it was the first time he had met them. Instead of listening to the journey they had taken to get there, he waded straight in with ‘these aren’t the right goals — after all, they’re not SMART — we all believe in SMART goals, don’t we?’
I’m afraid that I reacted by saying that I didn’t believe in SMART goals at all. I told him that I believed in CLEVER goals, and I articulated what I’m about to tell you now. Perhaps this was a slightly pugnacious thing to do, but I felt a huge amount of sympathetic pain for the volunteers who had gone through a careful process of negotiation and got a large community to agree to a common path. There was a huge amount of achievement there, and it was about to be wiped out because the deputy chief executive wanted to impose the public sector networking board’s new goals on the community groups. The thing was, these people had been in that community for forty, fifty or even seventy years. The deputy chief executive was there for about ten months before he moved on.
So, what are CLEVER goals?
CLEVER is an acronym for creating the right goals, rather than formatting them for a project plan. As it happens, the goals that that community board had come up with were all CLEVER, and this came out of the long process of negotiation and mutual respect that had produced them. They could have been formatted into the SMART style, but this would not have enhanced their value as goals.
Let me unpack these.
To me, a strategy is a way to get from A to B which is somehow better than the obvious way. It may be quicker, cheaper, bring on board more people, be more interesting, or anything else which brings in more of the ultimate purposes than simply arriving at B. To have strategy, you have to creatively consider some alternatives. Sometimes the obvious way is the right way, but you have to have gone through a creative process, such as, perhaps, brainstorming, and come up with some alternatives to know that the obvious way is superior.
Creativity is not just about the way to get from A to B, but includes what B actually is. Creative goals are where we’ve looked at, and possibly negotiated, goals which are better. A family of four may have four possible destinations for a holiday day out. One person wants to go to a castle, one to the seaside, one to the shops, and one for a nice meal. They have four destinations — four ‘B’s — on the table. No one destination achieves all of these things. The creativity happens when each person is willing to look at a different, fifth, option, which might bring in more of these things. Creative goals produce the magical ‘win-win’, when we move off the simple ‘I get what I want’ or compromise, to ‘everyone gets what they want’.
When goals are first agreed, it’s tempting to pin them right down, because the process of agreeing them was so arduous that we don’t want to open the conversation again. Anyone who has been on a board or committee should have learned that you’re not supposed to rediscuss matters previously discussed, or re-visit previous agreements. If you do, the work will never progress. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t leave the goals loose-ended. Having gone through the journey to get to agreed goals, you have built a coalition of trust and shared understanding. However, you probably don’t have all the knowledge that you will have by the time you’ve completed the project. By resisting the temptation to pin everything down (in other words, resisting SMART), you can state goals in such a way that the outcome is very clear, but everything which isn’t intrinsic to the outcome is left loose-ended. This enables those implementing it to use their front-line knowledge, enables you to adjust as you go without having to go back for re-authorisation, and enables you to improve the goal as you go. Again, note that this isn’t just about improving the method, but actually improving the goal. The family of four, for example, in travelling to the fifth destination which satisfies three of them, may discover on the way that there are shops, or a castle, or a restaurant, or a beach, and therefore add that in.
Based very much on Mintzberg’s early work, goals need to grow as you go. The rise of crowd-sourcing has made this more popular. Goals which emerge from the grass-roots, thereby making use of a much larger knowledge and experience base, and goals which emerge as the project progresses, are much more likely to be the right goals. Someone once defined management as effectively climbing the ladder, while leadership is about making sure the ladder is up against the right tree. Sometimes we only discover that it’s the wrong tree when we’re half-way up the ladder. It is then very tempting to complete the goal — after all, it was specific, measured, agreed, realistic and timed — by getting to the top of the tree. Emergent working, though, means that we are able to change the goal when our learning shows us that it was the wrong goal.
My chief criticism of SMART is that SMART doesn’t make things valuable. I’m talking here about value, not value-for-money. Value-for-money is one of these measures which sounds like it’s objective, but isn’t. I was at college with a physicist who bought classical music tapes (it was the days of cassette) rather than contemporary music because you got more minutes of music per penny. He didn’t particularly like either kind. If you are buying MP3s, you would be foolish to spend the time searching for the most minutes of music per penny, but that would be a genuine ‘value for money’ measure. It may be hitting the target, but it’s missing the point. Valuable is something which is valuable to you, your organisation, your team, or whoever it is that is setting the goal. It may be that building the team is valuable (it usually is), even though it is not directly measurable. When I worked in the arts, a colleague warned me early on about Whitehall’s tendency to measure everything that can be measured and ignore everything else — a particularly poor way of funding the creative industries. As a concept, valuable is most valuable itself when it’s used as a challenge to value-for-money or measurable value. Create goals which are valuable. Worry about how (or whether) to measure them later.
Kennedy famously said that America was putting a man on the moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard. The people who climb mountains do so because it’s hard. However, in both cases, they broke the main goal down into a series of smaller goals which were themselves easy. Intermediate goals — the steps in a project — can be CLEVER rather than just SMART. What’s more, for most things that we face in business and community, goals which are hard for us are easy for someone else. Years ago I learned that it was cheaper and better to get a tradesman in than to do DIY, unless it was something DIY that I actually knew how to do. There are areas where we need to build up our own expertise, and there are things which we’ll only ever need doing once. If it’s not easy for you, but is for someone else, make the intermediate goal finding them and persuading them to help. If the intermediate goal is not easy, then either break it down into easy steps or — and this is important — consider whether it should be a goal at all. It may mean going back to the creative stage and saying ‘is there another way to do this which is going to be easier’. This correlates with Achievable and Realistic, but it’s a stronger test. Lots of things are achievable or realistic, but still difficult. They are where planning-based projects often go wrong. All the energies of the team may go into achieving something which is not especially valuable, but whose difficulty somehow raises it to the level of the main goal.
Going with the most difficult is something I’ve often observed. In many areas of life, things appear more valuable because they are difficult. Are leaflets delivered house-to-house by volunteers more effective than those sent in the post by Royal Mail? If you’re delivering an entire street, you may do it in less time than it would have taken you to earn the price of the postage. If you’re delivering to two hundred people scattered across an entire constituency, then not only the time, but also the fuel to get there is probably more than the cost of the postage. Nonetheless, among the kind of people who deliver things door to door, the volunteer-powered method is often seen as somehow more virtuous. Pick the easy goal, not the hard one, if they produce the same result!
A large part of the difficulty of doing anything is the learning required to do it the first time. Getting agreement to do it at all is also a hurdle. Some goals are by their nature one-offs. However, when there’s a choice of two goals to work towards, the one which is repeatable is often the better choice. Once you’ve accomplished something, the second time will be easier, people will already recognise its value so it will be easier to gain agreement, you’ll have identified the pitfalls and how to avoid them. Even better is when you can fully describe the goal and the method of achieving this so that someone else can do it. This can offer a way into your team for a new person, extend the skills of colleagues, or simply free you or someone else up to pioneer other new goals. I remember the first time I wrote a fund-raising letter and leaflet to go out by mail to 2,000 people, I found the prospect terrifying. I had broken it down into easy steps, but there was something about the goal itself which scared me, and I genuinely doubted that we would recover the costs of mailing it out. However, the second time it was much easier and took a third of the time. The third time I managed to organise the whole thing in one weekend. I now have a set of materials that I can give to someone else, showing what the crucial paragraphs are, how to get the mailing quotes and compare them (mailing companies seem to make an art of obfustication of costs), how to get it signed off, and so on. I’m not an expert fundraiser, but I do now know how to write and mail a letter.
It’s my contention that you can format any goal into SMART — though you may lose much in doing so — but that SMART itself does not help you come up with the right goals. CLEVER — especially as I came up with it on a piece of paper while listening to the man who was speaking — is not a complete or perfect system (I did play with some of the concepts subsequently), but it is a system for creating and testing the right goals.
If it is useful to you, by all means, use it.