What’s so smart about SMART objectives?

It’s not so odd a question as it might first appear. The answer, of course, is that it applies a method well known since antiquity for achieving consistent results every time (or remembering important information correctly every time). Everyone will have a few mnemonic devices that have stuck in the mind since school – acronyms or short poems designed to easily memorise key facts or lists. Does it seems childish now, looking back, to chant through a poem to remember exactly what fate befell each of the wives of Henry the Fifth, and in what order. For many people that may be true, but for others who’ve gone into professions where safety and lives depend on getting it right first time, every time, mnemonics are still a valued part of every day life. Here’s a practical example. Pilots landing an aircraft can have a very high workload with a lot of things happening at once: fly the plane, navigate, engine management, handling radio communication, watching out for other traffic and ground signals just for starters. Any one of those things has the potential to very quickly turn into a life-threatening situation. To make sure that correct processes are followed every time, instructors will break the process of landing into simpler stages with mnemonic devices for the steps to be carried out at each one. Pre-landing checks vary between aircraft, but the principle is constant. Two of the most familiar mnemonics are BUMPF (to a UK pilot) and GUMPS (to an American). Brakes – Undercarriage – Mixture – Pitch – Flaps or Gas – Undercarriage – Mixture – Pitch – Switches remind the pilot to methodically check that the systems and settings of his/her aircraft are correct for landing. What has all this to do with SMART objectives? Just like the pilot, the modern manager has a high workload. There’s a lot going on, a great deal of information to be assimilated and it’s not always easy to apply consistency to a task, such as writing objectives, which is both less fequent and more complex than many others. Many management theorists recognised that goal setting is one of the most important things a manager does, and that the manager needs a system for doing it consistently and appropriately. In “Leadership and the One Minute Manager” (1985) and later works, Ken Blanchard introduced the concept of SMART objectives. Blanchard’s definition of the acronym was “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Trackable”, but other variations on the theme exist. SMART objectives help both the manager and the recipient of an objective to evaluate and agree whether or not the objective is valid. Let’s look at how they do it in a quick, consistent and easily remembered structure. SPECIFIC – an objective must be a clearly defined action or result. If it isn’t, it’s not an objective! MEASUREABLE – both parties must agree a measure, or definition, of success. ATTAINABLE – sometimes expressed as “ACHIEVABLE”. Both parties must agree that the objective can be achieved within the period of time set for it. RELEVANT – the objective must be relevant either to the immediate business goals, or to the longer term business strategy. Both of these can (and should) include career or personal development objectives for the individual. TRACKABLE – later versions of “SMART” tend to use “TIMELY” or “TIMEBOXED” for the T in SMART. Is this an appropriate objective for the current period? Is it appropriate to defer it to some future time in order to better balance workload? If an objective isn’t relevant at the moment, or cannot have a deadline set, then it’s inappropriate to set it as a goal to be achieved within a reporting period.

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