Why we need to get SMART on objectives

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I recently read a piece by HR blogger, Duncan Brown where he suggests the setting of SMART objectives should become a thing of the past.

Apparently, there are research findings from Harvard University to demonstrate negative effects. Duncan believes one of the negatives is staff missing the benefits of unplanned opportunities. He suggests that, "instead of mechanistic cascading of corporate goals, you should talk to your staff, in groups as well as individually, about the mission of your organisation. Get them to understand it and to identify with it and then to think about how they can further it".

Every time I read what I think of as 'back to the woods' type ideas, my mind wanders back to many years ago when I worked for a charity which was set up as a collective. Everybody was paid the same. All teams were self-managed. There were no rules and no performance objectives, although there were job descriptions. The understanding was we all had a passion for providing accommodation and support to get and keep homeless people off the streets. We would all pool our individual talents and work co-operatively and creatively to do what needed to be done.

The result was a cult of naked individualism. It was great for me in many ways because I was able to focus exclusively on personal interests at work and go on endless training courses that were not linked to any goals for improved performance. However, it was not so great for the beneficiaries of our services. There were no outcomes or standards set for the work to be done with them. They became a peripheral nuisance while staff engaged in all manner of self-examination and hobbyism. The most powerful - which often equated to the most manipulative - personalities set the values base for the organisation. I got sent to Coventry by the whole collective for a month when I questioned the fact that a colleague had been off on sickness or other special absence for a quarter of the year.

The personal interest that I decided to indulge was personnel work. I had to find a way to bring order into the anarchy and waste of resources I saw all around me. Firstly I managed to usher in the concept of line management. Admittedly initially on the basis that it rotated democratically between all team members on a six-monthly basis to prevent the oppression of hierarchy.

And then came a tipping point in the journey of liberation from the tyranny of this ostensibly creative 'let your hair down' culture. I asked the wonderful, organisation develoipment expert, Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge to come in and run a session on appraisals. She taught us how to set SMART objectives and to evidence performance against these. Thus began for me a 20 year love affair with rational linear performance management processes, enhanced further a few years later by the introduction of the then quite novel concept of competencies.

Since then, having had much time to observe both in my own organisation and in those that I work with as a consultant the stark difference between the focus, performance levels and creativity of teams and organisations that do it and those that don't, nothing will convince me that defining performance objectives should be consigned to the dustbin of HR staples.

I realise how seductive the notion of binning them is, given that so many line managers find them difficult and boring to come up with. However, we know from many other recent studies that something like 50% of line managers shouldn't be line managers, and perhaps there's a correlation to be looked at there.

I would agree with Duncan that a great deal of care needs to be taken to ensure the format and content of goals evolves to meet changing organisational needs and priorities and so they incentivise rather than constrain flexibility and innovation.

But as far as I'm concerned, the smart money lies on retaining SMART objectives.

Helen Giles (pictured), HR director at homeless charity, The Broadway

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