Houston we have a SMART problem

I always associated SMART goals with positive things, such as sound corporate governance. Never in my life I would have thought that SMART would be threat to the people I work with. But things have changed and they continue to change.

When my team has to reach a certain goal, I chunk that goal into manageable parts and plans. Next, individuals commit to the plan. Eventually – if I want them to perform well against the plan – I assign them SMART goals.

SMART is one of those management acronyms that are taken for granted by everyone. It stands for:
S   – Specific, meaning: unambiguous, clear goals
M   – Measurable, meaning: ’if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’
A   – Attainable, meaning: a little stretch is OK
R   – Relevant, meaning: ’important to me’
T   – Traceable by setting a journey of interim goals

Table Soccer

That is what managers and consultants learn at business schools and it is what I have been proclaiming ever since graduating. No need to shoot holes in a concept that works, is there? Everyone understands it, shepherds love it and sheep flock eagerly on SMART meadows.

Hmmm… and that’s exactly where the problem is: rather than fueling or accelerating their performance, SMART goals are numbing very bit of initiative and creativity out of people. Rather than empowering people, with SMART goals I am putting a fence around them. I’m domesticating them with function descriptions and herding them within the fences of the status quo. As you can guess: that fence an illusion of security that makes people stop thinking.

A few weeks ago Jef Staes told me that it is better to start looking at SMART goals as the worst symptom of atrophy. Once you consistently need SMART goals for your organization to perform this means that your people have lost all of their self-propelling capacity. People have become sheep and the organization has lost all of its agility. You are playing table soccer with your people.

Houston

Why are SMART top-down controlled organizations with diligent employees in trouble? They’ve worked splendid in an environment where the amount of information was fixed. The manager receives the information, interprets and processes it and then hands out the instructions. In fact, this has been the secret of growth in our economy over the past decades.

But now a shift is happening: the amount of information is overwhelming and most people, teams and companies are paralyzed by the flood of information. Information has become the new element. We are overwhelmed by something we can’t get enough of. The result for SMART corporate decision-making is painstaking: as a central commander you need to process even more information faster. No matter how hard you try, you will always be too late in this new information-driven economy.

Go Dumb or stay Numb?

If you are a leader, the key to staying on top is to stop trying to stay on top. That’s right, the advice for decision makers is to get dumber by empowering their people. That way they stop being the single information processing bottleneck. By the way, isn’t it a coincidence that the bottleneck is always at the top of the bottle?

Getting dumber will reduce the bottleneck in two ways:

1. Distributing the intelligence across their organization; turning the sheep into passionate knowledge hunters. And it’s still Ok to stay on top of decision-making. But continuing to be the single information-processing hub is paralyzing your organization.

2. Redefining intelligence. In reality intelligence is the social skill to work together in a network of experts. Joseph Chilton Pearce defines intelligence as the ability to interact. Knowledge is a social thing. Take the people away and you end up on ground zero.

The New SMART

In the old days looking forward was a good way to plan ahead. There was no ambiguous fog of information. Now the challenge is to look through the information clutter, visualizing a goal that is not yet visible. Some call it intuition, others call it gut-feeling. I call it the single most needed competence of today’s leaders: the skill to get out of their minds and into their senses.

For employees the transformation from a sheep to knowledge hunters will come as an electro-shock. After all, empowerment means taking responsibility above and beyond any fence that has been set up by them or their boss.

There are no fences. And soccer is no longer a table game.

  • http://www.trustwerks.com/ Angela Stauder

    Amen!

    What could we achieve in organizations if there was general clarity on direction for movement (we are going this way, not that way), we trusted people to be experts at what they do, and provided opportunities for quick regrouping to get small groups on the same page? Would it increase the possibility to make steady progress, and do it more quickly?

    In most sports, it is organized chaos. Yet the players adjust and move to take get the ball down the field. They run plays (action plans), and look for openings to move forward. There are general rules of engagement on how to play (values, policies).

    I wonder what would be possible if organizations threw out the performance management process in favor of managing work teams like sports teams…

  • http://www.trustwerks.com Angela Stauder

    Amen!

    What could we achieve in organizations if there was general clarity on direction for movement (we are going this way, not that way), we trusted people to be experts at what they do, and provided opportunities for quick regrouping to get small groups on the same page? Would it increase the possibility to make steady progress, and do it more quickly?

    In most sports, it is organized chaos. Yet the players adjust and move to take get the ball down the field. They run plays (action plans), and look for openings to move forward. There are general rules of engagement on how to play (values, policies).

    I wonder what would be possible if organizations threw out the performance management process in favor of managing work teams like sports teams…

  • http://www.reply-mc.com/ Luc Galoppin

    @Angela – The analogy of a sports team is one that remains unexplored by me. Currently I am going at great length through the analogy of music conductors and all kinds of orchestra.
    But sports teams look attractive from that perspective as well – so I may end up blogging about them one day.
    Thanks!
    Luc.

  • http://www.reply-mc.com Luc Galoppin

    @Angela – The analogy of a sports team is one that remains unexplored by me. Currently I am going at great length through the analogy of music conductors and all kinds of orchestra.
    But sports teams look attractive from that perspective as well – so I may end up blogging about them one day.
    Thanks!
    Luc.

  • Andreea Elefteriu

    About SMART – for the last 1-2 years I hear and promote to my trainees the SMARTA concept where the last A=agreed.
    Of course at least 50% of the managers don’t give a penny on that “A” – they are managers, they say, the others do – but the others 50% agree that if they do not have the agreement of their employee SMART can be brilliant but perfectly useless.

  • Andreea Elefteriu

    About SMART – for the last 1-2 years I hear and promote to my trainees the SMARTA concept where the last A=agreed.
    Of course at least 50% of the managers don’t give a penny on that “A” – they are managers, they say, the others do – but the others 50% agree that if they do not have the agreement of their employee SMART can be brilliant but perfectly useless.

  • http://www.monkeyman.be/ Jan Fabry

    Is this the same as Mission Command, or Auftragstaktik, as implemented in the German army since the 19th century? (Also known as Commander’s Intent in “Made to Stick”)? “In mission-type tactics, the military commander gives their subordinate leaders a clearly defined goal (the mission), the forces needed to accomplish that goal and a time frame within which the goal must be reached. The subordinate leaders then implement the order independently.” This is related to the sports example: the general goal is clear (“We need to score at least one goal more than the other team”), the trainer can give some broad instructions (“You cover the defensive area, you do offense”), but he can’t micro-manage while the game is underway.

    This implies the manager cannot come up with new tasks every day, and needs to articulate the general goal of the company or subdivision – I’m afraid there are still managers that just meddle around because they have no idea of what such a goal could be. This is easier in the restricted rules of a football game or a “simple” war (where you need to conquer some land, and not mind about the opinion of the civilians). But if you have no goals at all, you’re lost before you leave your driveway.

  • http://www.monkeyman.be Jan Fabry

    Is this the same as Mission Command, or Auftragstaktik, as implemented in the German army since the 19th century? (Also known as Commander’s Intent in “Made to Stick”)? “In mission-type tactics, the military commander gives their subordinate leaders a clearly defined goal (the mission), the forces needed to accomplish that goal and a time frame within which the goal must be reached. The subordinate leaders then implement the order independently.” This is related to the sports example: the general goal is clear (“We need to score at least one goal more than the other team”), the trainer can give some broad instructions (“You cover the defensive area, you do offense”), but he can’t micro-manage while the game is underway.

    This implies the manager cannot come up with new tasks every day, and needs to articulate the general goal of the company or subdivision – I’m afraid there are still managers that just meddle around because they have no idea of what such a goal could be. This is easier in the restricted rules of a football game or a “simple” war (where you need to conquer some land, and not mind about the opinion of the civilians). But if you have no goals at all, you’re lost before you leave your driveway.

  • http://www.reply-mc.com/ Luc Galoppin

    I find the importance of CI (Commander’s Intent) of utmost importance. Looking at the wiki links that Jan has provided I particularly like the phrase:

    “Thus, the proper German designation is Führen durch Auftrag, literally leading by task as opposed to Führen durch Befehl, i.e. leading by orders. Direct orders are an exception in the German armed forces, while “tasks” are the standard instrument of leadership from high command down to squad level.”

  • http://www.reply-mc.com Luc Galoppin

    I find the importance of CI (Commander’s Intent) of utmost importance. Looking at the wiki links that Jan has provided I particularly like the phrase:

    “Thus, the proper German designation is Führen durch Auftrag, literally leading by task as opposed to Führen durch Befehl, i.e. leading by orders. Direct orders are an exception in the German armed forces, while “tasks” are the standard instrument of leadership from high command down to squad level.”

  • pim vandijck

    As you know I often agree on your opinion, but this time I don’t follow you for the full 100% :
    Last week I was reading an article on the problems Toyota has en the comments by the prime minister of Japan towards Mr Toyoda (currently CEO and son of the founder of Toyota). THis fact alone (publicly commented on behaviour) is worth the effort to write a book about how you don’t treat people in our Western culture. But the facts happened in Japan, so who am I to comment this… Well, Mr Toyoda promised to apply the basic management technique of Toyota; Genchi Genbutsu, which reminded me of your article.
    Genchi Genbutsu is a management technique on which The Toyota way of doing business is based. It mean ‘I will go to the workfloor myself to investigate the problem en solve it”. When I read this I was thinking mmh, is this man saying he doesn’t trust the info he receives from his employees ? Which reminded me of the thousands and thousands unheared voices of highly competent labourers, people who know how their machine works and what doesn’t work. Despite all of this wisdome within a handreach, many engineers often give their loyal labourers highly SMART goals. You say in the text above that this is a bad approach and we should more often avoid SMART target.
    Well, I don’t agree 100%. I rather like the moderate approach ; don’t use the SMART goals too often. Let people be free to choose, so they can use their creativity, give their oppinion and work on their personal development. On the other hand, sometimes give the SMART goals.
    Why giving SMART goals ? Many people ask for clarity on what you expect them to do. Be clear on your expectations by formulating them into SMART goals. This is a basis for a good understanding and cooperation/friendship.
    Perhaps instead of taking away all the walls of our footballtable, we should only remove the side walls. Aside from the goals we leave the walls which gives our employees a certain certainty that when they try to score and they miss the goal, they don’t neceserilly kick the ball to the other end of the room with a GAME OVER as a result…
    CONCLUSION : if you focus on creativity I follow your opinion, but within organisations, you shouldn’t exaggerate or everybody will go his/her own way and the coherence between teammembers fades. (luckily in space, the sun has strong power on earth and the other planets, or we would get lost in space …)

  • pim vandijck

    As you know I often agree on your opinion, but this time I don’t follow you for the full 100% :
    Last week I was reading an article on the problems Toyota has en the comments by the prime minister of Japan towards Mr Toyoda (currently CEO and son of the founder of Toyota). THis fact alone (publicly commented on behaviour) is worth the effort to write a book about how you don’t treat people in our Western culture. But the facts happened in Japan, so who am I to comment this… Well, Mr Toyoda promised to apply the basic management technique of Toyota; Genchi Genbutsu, which reminded me of your article.
    Genchi Genbutsu is a management technique on which The Toyota way of doing business is based. It mean ‘I will go to the workfloor myself to investigate the problem en solve it”. When I read this I was thinking mmh, is this man saying he doesn’t trust the info he receives from his employees ? Which reminded me of the thousands and thousands unheared voices of highly competent labourers, people who know how their machine works and what doesn’t work. Despite all of this wisdome within a handreach, many engineers often give their loyal labourers highly SMART goals. You say in the text above that this is a bad approach and we should more often avoid SMART target.
    Well, I don’t agree 100%. I rather like the moderate approach ; don’t use the SMART goals too often. Let people be free to choose, so they can use their creativity, give their oppinion and work on their personal development. On the other hand, sometimes give the SMART goals.
    Why giving SMART goals ? Many people ask for clarity on what you expect them to do. Be clear on your expectations by formulating them into SMART goals. This is a basis for a good understanding and cooperation/friendship.
    Perhaps instead of taking away all the walls of our footballtable, we should only remove the side walls. Aside from the goals we leave the walls which gives our employees a certain certainty that when they try to score and they miss the goal, they don’t neceserilly kick the ball to the other end of the room with a GAME OVER as a result…
    CONCLUSION : if you focus on creativity I follow your opinion, but within organisations, you shouldn’t exaggerate or everybody will go his/her own way and the coherence between teammembers fades. (luckily in space, the sun has strong power on earth and the other planets, or we would get lost in space …)

  • http://www.reply-mc.com/ Luc Galoppin

    @Pim

    You are touching the essence of this discussion: giving up control?! – “YES BUT …” you can’t just give it all up? You can’t just TRUST all the people for the full 100%?

    OR MAYBE WE CAN … I am in the middle of reading ‘The Seven-Day Weekend’ (Ricardo Semler) and there is a particular paragraph that responds to your comment:
    “So when we expanded flextime to include assembly-line workers, all intellectual hell broke loose. That was taking it too far, we heard—we were ignoring the basic requirements of a shop floor. Of course an assembly line cannot have flextime, people hollered. And we just asked, “Why?” “Isn’t it obvious?” they said. If workers weren’t working at the same time, the assembly lines would grind to a halt. Okay, we knew that, but so did the adults who work on it. And why would they jeopardize their output, their jobs?”

    A few pages earlier in the book, Semler notes:
    “If they didn’t care if the assembly line moved or stopped, then we’d have a much graver problem, and the sooner we found out the better.”

    Essentially Semler says ‘don’t be a nanny.’ Most companies treat their workers like children, telling them what to do, when to do it, how to dress and how to behave. That way they’ll never think for themselves.

    ‘You can have an efficient company without rules and controls. You can be unbuttoned and creative without sacrificing profit. All it takes is faith in people’.

    I haven’t finished reading the book and I too have mixed feelings about this… although my gut feeling is saying this is the way.

    To be continued…

    Luc.

  • http://www.reply-mc.com Luc Galoppin

    @Pim

    You are touching the essence of this discussion: giving up control?! – “YES BUT …” you can’t just give it all up? You can’t just TRUST all the people for the full 100%?

    OR MAYBE WE CAN … I am in the middle of reading ‘The Seven-Day Weekend’ (Ricardo Semler) and there is a particular paragraph that responds to your comment:
    “So when we expanded flextime to include assembly-line workers, all intellectual hell broke loose. That was taking it too far, we heard—we were ignoring the basic requirements of a shop floor. Of course an assembly line cannot have flextime, people hollered. And we just asked, “Why?” “Isn’t it obvious?” they said. If workers weren’t working at the same time, the assembly lines would grind to a halt. Okay, we knew that, but so did the adults who work on it. And why would they jeopardize their output, their jobs?”

    A few pages earlier in the book, Semler notes:
    “If they didn’t care if the assembly line moved or stopped, then we’d have a much graver problem, and the sooner we found out the better.”

    Essentially Semler says ‘don’t be a nanny.’ Most companies treat their workers like children, telling them what to do, when to do it, how to dress and how to behave. That way they’ll never think for themselves.

    ‘You can have an efficient company without rules and controls. You can be unbuttoned and creative without sacrificing profit. All it takes is faith in people’.

    I haven’t finished reading the book and I too have mixed feelings about this… although my gut feeling is saying this is the way.

    To be continued…

    Luc.

  • pim vandijck

    Luc, the things written in your book are very much alive where I work at the Belgian railways. We have a group of people who work in a full continue system with 3 shifts of 8hours each – so far the official rules. When we look at the clockings of those people none of them work 8 hours and they certainly don’t start when we ask them to start. The reason ? No they are not rebels, they simply come by train and work by the hours their train arrives and goes back home. If you look at it over a one year time span they all work their hours. But because of their team decision, the guarantee a full continue system, and each one of them works one day 7h15 and a colleague works that day 9h05 and a third one works 8h40. Take a calculator and you will see the total is also 24h00 ! They other week the person who worked less, will work some more and everybody is happy.

    Much of this is based on trust. I’m reading The speed of trust by Stephen Covey and it’s true. Trust is the basis for all the rest. One day you might have to give clear ordeers in the form of SMART targets, but the more trust arrises, people will come up with the results, even before you were able to set targets.

    Trust your employees and make sure they trust you. If you succeed in doing this, the sky won’t be the limit… it will just be the beginning of a new, better way of working.

    to be continued in discussions :-)

  • pim vandijck

    Luc, the things written in your book are very much alive where I work at the Belgian railways. We have a group of people who work in a full continue system with 3 shifts of 8hours each – so far the official rules. When we look at the clockings of those people none of them work 8 hours and they certainly don’t start when we ask them to start. The reason ? No they are not rebels, they simply come by train and work by the hours their train arrives and goes back home. If you look at it over a one year time span they all work their hours. But because of their team decision, the guarantee a full continue system, and each one of them works one day 7h15 and a colleague works that day 9h05 and a third one works 8h40. Take a calculator and you will see the total is also 24h00 ! They other week the person who worked less, will work some more and everybody is happy.

    Much of this is based on trust. I’m reading The speed of trust by Stephen Covey and it’s true. Trust is the basis for all the rest. One day you might have to give clear ordeers in the form of SMART targets, but the more trust arrises, people will come up with the results, even before you were able to set targets.

    Trust your employees and make sure they trust you. If you succeed in doing this, the sky won’t be the limit… it will just be the beginning of a new, better way of working.

    to be continued in discussions :-)

  • Ian Pettifer

    As an employment rights lawyer, I advise my employer clients to use SMART goal setting when conducting performance management of staff. It sets out an ideal model of how to comply with United Kingdom laws on treating employees fairly when considering a performance dismissal. In short, SMART goal setting is most appropriately used when trying to manage and turn around poor performance. Trying to use this technique in day to day management is inevitably flawed, because this is not what the model was designed for.

    In the normal environment, SMART goal setting often comes across as bullying and over-controlling.

  • Ian Pettifer

    As an employment rights lawyer, I advise my employer clients to use SMART goal setting when conducting performance management of staff. It sets out an ideal model of how to comply with United Kingdom laws on treating employees fairly when considering a performance dismissal. In short, SMART goal setting is most appropriately used when trying to manage and turn around poor performance. Trying to use this technique in day to day management is inevitably flawed, because this is not what the model was designed for.

    In the normal environment, SMART goal setting often comes across as bullying and over-controlling.

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