Is it WISE to be SMART?
For many years, managers have been urged to set "SMART" targets for their staff, where the SMART acronym stands for some variant of Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. This seems like common sense advice; and yet most organizations still find it difficult to make this common sense work! The dynamics of informal coalitions suggests that managers need to ask themselves if the use of SMART targets to manage performance is wise, in a complex, uncertain and rapidly changing world.
The challenge of complexity, uncertainty and change
Increasingly, people in organizations must act with only partial knowledge (and sometimes total ignorance) of the likely shape and direction of future events. Very little takes place in the "known with certainty" zone. Even where circumstances appear fixed, and events predictable in the immediate term, it is likely that small disturbances in the external environment or internal dynamics of the organization will conspire to confound "the best laid plans . . ." etc.
In many years of working in and around organizations, I have yet to experience a situation in which actual events have turned out in the ways foreseen in detailed plans, programmes and budgets. Yet SMART targets imply that the future can be predicted and the required actions determined with certainty for significant periods ahead. Even where the overall goal is unambiguous (and expressible broadly in SMART terms), it is likely that many course corrections will be needed along the way. And these will necessarily require many of the original ‘micro’ plans and targets to be abandoned, if the ‘macro’ goal is to be achieved successfully. Some individuals or groups may need to move ‘backwards’ in relation to their original goals, if the organization as a whole is to move forward.
A recipe for under-performance
Breaking large tasks into bite-sized pieces so that these can be more readily understood and digested is one thing. To define individuals’ success or failure in terms of their achievement or otherwise of these separate elements is quite another. The interdependencies and uncertainties are too great for this to be a sensible way forward. Strict adherence by individuals or teams to their own specific, measurable, achievable, (one-time) relevant and time-bound targets, which SMART-based performance management systems are designed to encourage, is more likely to guarantee the under-performance of the wider organization than to secure its success.
A WISEr approach?
In a complex and constantly changing environment, managing performance demands a WISEr approach to leadership than that offered by the overuse of SMART targets. If people are to perform effectively under these conditions, they need first to understand why their contribution is important. Secondly, they need to be aware of, and remain alert to, the inter-dependencies within the overall system. This means understanding how their contribution fits in, what others need from them, and which relationships are critical to their own and others’ success. These first two requirements provide perspective, by giving context and meaning to people’s work.
Next, they need to be encouraged, assisted and enabled to exercise effective self-management:
- gaining and consolidating new experience, knowledge and skills, to become increasingly self-sufficient and self-confident in their own abilities;
- taking more responsibility for self-directing their own actions and exerting more self-control over their own performance, in an adaptive rather than pre-programmed way; and
- collaborating effectively with others when required, to build coalitions of co-operative effort that extract maximum value for the organization from emerging events and challenges.
Finally, people need to be inspired and enabled to achieve extra-ordinary performance through the fostering of conditions in which they have the motive, means and opportunity to excel. This requires leaders to work to embed patterns of cultural assumptions in which the above requirements become taken for granted. Smart leaders will WISE-up to these challenges!
© Chris Rodgers