Senior Consultant EEF
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SMART Objectives Are Not Always Appropriate?

30th Jan 2015
Senior Consultant EEF
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The default methodology for writing objectives especially at Performance Reviews or during the Annual Appraisals is SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time Based or some variant thereof. It’s become a totem of ‘good’ objective setting. And I agree, for most task or project based work I think it’s current best practise which we should all aspire to use.

This system starts to lose traction where the performance we wish to focus on is related to attitude, values or manner. Sometimes it can be impossible to put a metric or a precise measure against this type of issue. It is also problematic to define a single result as being indicative of a successful resolution to the matter. One example might be ‘Poor Team Working’. An individual SMART objective which would cover all the issues falling out of this challenge would I propose be impossible to conjure.

Where possible we should lean towards a quantifiable result so there can be clarity as to whether something has been achieved or not. Sometimes the issue against which we wish to set clear objectives simple does not fit these parameters, ‘Poor Team Working’ is one example ‘Negative Attitudes Towards Change’ and ‘Mediocre Customer Care Skills’ would be two others.

In these circumstances the manager has to help his staff understand their concerns and set goals. Vague and imprecise definitions will lead to vague and imprecise understanding which in turn will lead to vague and imprecise results. And as we all know; ‘what happens in vagueness stays in vagueness’. It will also create problems as the very issue you wish to address will persist and continue to disadvantage the company and ultimately the individual.

For something that approaches a clearer definition of what you as a manager require it is not sufficient to tell staff that you want them to ‘improve their team working’ or ‘attitudes towards change’. This isn’t good enough.

So, what to do? Start by using the broadest terms to define the area you want improvement, example: ‘Team Working’, the individual with whom you are working may have a track record of unnecessarily working autonomously, failing to engage with others, failing to share information with their team mates and remaining uncommunicative in team meetings. These are not necessarily areas where a SMART system would adequately fit. But we have already begun to identify in a little more detail what some of the challenges are:

1. Working unnecessarily autonomously.
2. Failing to engage with others in discussions.
3. Not constructively participating in meetings.

This is a starting point, begin by identifying what the individual does wrong or fails to do which contributes to the problem. If you can’t identify what they do or do not do then you can’t address it, you’re the problem now, not the individual. Once we have clarified what the member of staff is doing which causes the problems we now seek to identify the contra behaviours which will counter these negative factors. In the example which follows the individual’s poor team working was mainly reflected in 5 problematic behaviours. It may not be all of the issues this person has around team working but it is likely to be a significant part of it.

Challenges or Issues ~~ Appropriate Alternative Responses

Team Working

Generally not sharing pertinent information with colleagues.
~~ Will Increase the use of the phone and email to communicate relevant data and information which may help or support colleagues in their duties and tasks.

Failing to contribute relevant information in meetings.
~~ Will recognise discussions and contribute to topics where they might be able to explain or clarify an issue or point which is under consideration.

Not raising concerns where they have identified problems.
~~ Will raise and communicate immediately their concerns or worries via an appropriate medium.

Giving monosyllabic responses which do not reflect an informed opinion.
~~ Will respond to questions or assumptions which explain in detail their own views and opinions.

Failing to volunteer or work with colleagues on sub projects and tasks.
~~ Will actively engage and participate in sub projects and tasks where their skill set could make an important contribution.

The second entries above seek to identify appropriate alternative actions or behaviours which the manager would want to see the individual practise. If these actions are instigated we would begin to see the issue of poor team working resolved. Sometimes you will not be addressing an existing weakness or challenge but rather want to increase or focus on an area which is likely to increase in importance and relevance over the ensuing period. In which case the challenge or Issue column might be blank and you move directly to defining the appropriate alternative responses.

How successfully these behaviours are implemented is measured using two metrics: Constancy and Consistency.  

Constancy
This focusses on how regularly or frequently they attempt to apply and utilise the described actions. As the manager you would seek to observe and seek feedback on the extent the individual applies themselves to utilising and applying the representative behaviours you have presented to them.

The frequency of application could be defined as:

0 = Never
1 = In the minority of situations
2 = In the majority of situations
3 = Always

Consistency
This factor looks at how effectively they apply the desired behaviours. Do they generally achieve good or poor outcomes when taking these actions? Once again the manager would seek to monitor and receive feedback on the success of their efforts.

The success of their application could be defined as:

0 = None
1 = Poor
2 = Good
3 = Outstanding

Overall Assessment
The manager will now need to follow up and give regular feedback and support on the individual’s performance against the behaviours. In the final stages of assessment the marking scheme would be a simple multiplication of the two scores. The highest assessment achievable would be 9 (3X3) and this would equate to exceptional performance. 0 would be the lowest indicating absent and unacceptable.

The further gradations I suggest are as follows:

9 = Exceptional
6 = Good
4 = Acceptable
3, 2 = Poor
0 = Absent and Unacceptable

For attitudinal, value and behaviour based issues which the manager seeks to address through their performance management system the SMART approach is less than adequate. The best approach I can devise to respond to the manager’s dilemma in these circumstances is the system I have presented here.

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