SMART goals may not be that smart

I just blogged about Daniel Pink’s case around intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  This is a good lead-in for why SMART goals may be damaging to your organization.

SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

It is common management practice to tie employee ratings and annual bonus to the achievement of SMART objectives.  In light of the impact extrinsic motivators have on creativity, we must ask if this is really a good idea.  Bonuses or job progression that are linked to SMART objectives are extrinsic motivators, so we are going to end up killing creativity.  Oops.

I will go one step farther, and say that SMART objectives may be directly damaging to the organization since it provides unaligned goals for different individuals.

In the best case these are competing. I am working towards my goal and you towards yours.  Why would I want to help you since that will help you succeed and take away from my effort.  This been seen repeatedly in Agile teams where requirements for individual achievement undermine the team’s ability to function.

In the worst case actually conflicting.  For example, my goal is contrary to what is best for the company.  At that point I face the hard choice to do what is right and what is good for me.  I have seen this situation lots of times.  Managers in the company are provided specific goals that are not 100% in alignment with overall objectives.  That’s really the root of the problem.  Unless you can guarantee that goals (SMART or otherwise) are 100% in alignment with company goals you will run into this problem.  And even if goals are in alignment when they are created, what invariably happens is that there is drift in alignment as new information arrives.  Lean avoids this problem by focusing everyone on the top level company goal: profitability.  Anything else and your company will be wasting effort.

The last thing I’d like to touch on is what it means to be achievable. In IT, there is a lot of uncertainty about delivering software.  I have seen too many projects badly harmed by goals that have board level visibility.  With Agile projects there is some hope: work can be prioritized.  With more traditional projects, the common result is rushed work that leads to low quality and let’s of extra work and delay due to rework.  It can lead to compromised design, bad architecture, and a project that takes much longer than expected.

So watch out for SMART goals – they may not be.

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    February 24, 2010 @ 9:42 am

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