Is SMART still Relevant?

I confess I still like SMART* objectives despite the groans of “yes we know that” when I present it in training. I’ll agree, it is massively over used and often misused. It’s also overly relied upon as something that can be used on it’s own. 

I remember first being taught about SMART objectives many years ago. I still remember having to write an objective in which each of the SMART components could be ticked off within the words. Oh, how I ended up with a ridiculously long repetitive sentence that was of little use to anyone.

I’ve come across many examples of specific and measurable objectives being set, employees dutifully meet the objective but at what cost. There is usually more than one way to meet an objective and many people who will find the quickest or easiest route to meet a target. 

I absolutely understand why I get groans when I mention SMART. But, I still believe SMART has its uses.

The R, realistic or relevant? These words are often used as if they are interchangeable and it doesn’t matter which you use. It absolutely matters! Realistic is pretty much interchangeable with Achievable. Realistic doesn’t add anything. Relevant, on the other hand, is about the context within which the objective sits.

Is the objective Relevant to the person trying to achieve it. Do they understand its Relevance to the company? Or do they view it as Relevant to their lives. Do they see the point of the task they’ve been set. If we take away relevance we take away motivation. Why would I do something if I don’t see the point?

The point of SMART objectives is not just to create a stick with which to beat someone who hasn’t achieved. It’s also to give people a goal to aim towards. Having a target or a goal is motivational. But, it’s only motivational if it’s Achievable and worth putting in the effort to achieve. Without relevance it is very difficult to persuade someone a target is worth achieving. Equally if employees do not understand the relevance of an objective can it ever be achievable? 

Of course, achievable doesn’t just mean someone somewhere can achieve it. Can the target be achieved by that person in those circumstances with actions within their control. If an individual looks at a target and immediately believes it is not achievable that target will have no motivating effect. The individual is unlikely to “try and see how far they get”, they are much more likely to not bother trying.

The Measurable used will impact the view of whether something is relevant or achievable. It doesn’t matter how specific you are, and even whether the specific sounded relevant, if you are measuring the wrong thing. Or worse, don’t actually have a way of measuring the thing you are saying is your measurable. The relevance will disappear and your motivation to achieve is lost. 

The same applies to Time-bound, and I guess this is where the realistic could come in. The time, should be at a time when the measure can and will be taken. The feedback, confirmation of achievement or not, should fit with the target time. An inappropriate time can suddenly turn something that was achievable into achievable. 

The target must be Specific, clearly defining what is to be achieved. If you’ve considered the above the specific will start falling into place. Don’t be afraid to get detailed. If for example you have a sales target, there is no reason to avoid some level of detail about how you want that achieved. This is where your brand comes into the mix. If your brand is about selling through a quality customer experience you want to ensure your target covers this. If you want to avoid someone hitting their sales target through pressure selling, you need to be specific about this. 

All of a sudden our one sentence SMART objective becomes something much bigger. The target “Sales revenue of X value in each quarter” might look specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound. If you’re happy for your people to achieve this in anyway they see fit, this target is great. If you want your customers experience your brand in a particular way, this target is not great, it’s not specific. If you’ve not provided your people with the knowledge, skill and resources to present your brand in a particular way, this target that looked SMART is no longer achievable. Your view of what “achieved” looks like is different to their view of what achieved looked like. Without being specific about what achieving the target looks like, we can’t measure whether it has been achieved. 

As I stated at the start of this article, I do like SMART. I believe it is still relevant to us today. If it’s used correctly, it will add value to your brand, it will improve the performance of your people. 


*SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant, Time bound.

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