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
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.
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.