SMART objective setting: are you using it effectively?

When it comes to setting objectives, SMART is so ubiquitous that you probably already know what each of the letters stand for but, as Irial O’Farrell finds out, if you reframe SMART to being a framework that allows us to have a two-way conversation, you are set to have more impactful outcomes

If you’ve had to formally set objectives for your team, as part of your organisation’s performance management process, you’ve likely used the SMART framework. Less well known is how to use SMART when setting an objective with another person, as happens in the performance objective setting process. So, I’m going to share three of my own insights into using SMART. You’ll never look at SMART in quite the same way again.

Insight #1 – it’s not just about SMART

SMART theory goes something like: map out your goal by being Specific, make it Measurable and Attainable, call out why it’s Relevant (or Realistic), and set yourself a deadline, using Timeframe. What it doesn’t say is that all the above is based on the assumption that you’re setting a goal for yourself.  

That little assumption is the fly in the ointment when it comes to setting objectives as part of performance management.  You’re setting an objective with another person. Why does this matter? Without realising it, we are using two processes –SMART and the communication process. Over the years, I’ve asked countless managers to map out the communication process and typical response is a blank look. To extrapolate that a bit further, for most managers, when objective setting, we’re using two processes, one of which we’re not even aware of.

To put this in context, let’s look at an example. I set an objective with a team member, to increase sales by 20%. I know that to achieve a 20% lift, the customer base will need to be increased, which will include market analysis, short-listing a targeted list of customers, and follow-up. As an experienced sales manager, I know exactly the steps needed to successfully increase sales by 20%.

The team member has only been on the team for six months, hasn’t seen a full sales cycle yet and has come from another industry. When they hear an objective to increase sales by 20%, what do they assume? As their manager, do I check? Or do I just assume they have the same understanding as me? If so, I have failed to complete the communication feedback loop and I’ve increased the chances of this objective not being achieved.

Insight #2 – how attainable is this objective, really?

My second insight was the realisation that when it comes to objective setting, SMART provides a great framework to ensure that both parties are on the same page and that assumptions, from either party, haven’t crept into the process. For the longest time, I used to quickly brush past ‘Attainable’ on the basis of ‘of course it’s attainable!’. Truth be told, objective setting at junior levels usually do fall squarely in the Attainable bucket.

As we move into more complex objectives and/or cross-functional objectives though, are they Attainable? I started using Attainable to prompt a conversation around the assumptions, constraints, and dependencies that existed in the objective. We started having some really rich conversations about what’s in a person’s sphere of control, how they should deal with dependencies, when to escalate, what supports they would need to help them succeed.

Take a project manager, for example, who has been asked to deliver a new IT system. It would be very easy to say that this is Attainable and move swiftly along. However, is it attainable? How welcome are new IT systems in the company? Will the PM be supported by executive communications? What should they do if a key stakeholder refuses to get on-board? There are so many things that could undermine this objective before you’ve even stood up from the table, let alone left the room!

Using SMART to have a real conversation about the likely constraints, assumptions, boundaries and supports required gets both parties thinking about what actually needs to happen, to ensure the objective will be achieved. This recognition further increases the employee’s buy-in to the objective.

Insight #3 – use timeframe to map out a plan

There’s nothing more frustrating, for a manager or a team member, to get to the end of the performance review period and realise that several objectives haven’t been achieved. Why does this happen? And is there anything we can do about it?

As an Executive Coach, I get to see what makes people tick up very close and personal, and what holds them back. For a lot of people, a key blocker is not knowing how they’ll achieve a goal. They can’t see the path forward so they freeze and do nothing, even if they really want to achieve the goal!

My final insight is about how I use Timeframe to increase the likelihood that the objective will be achieved. SMART theory suggests that a target date is included under Timeframe. In keeping with this, oftentimes, managers just name a due date, say 31st October.

Let’s step back and have a think about this. If I set an objective for myself and I have an idea of how to achieve, the date of 31st October should be fine. When we jointly set objectives with a team member, does it hold? Such objectives often fall into two broad categories:

  1. developmental, e.g., learn to take on a specific task/process; and
  2. contributing to a strategic business goal e.g., launch a new product/service.

If we just set a deadline of 31 October, we’re assuming the individual knows how to achieve the goal. If we dig a little deeper, most of us are assuming that they know how to achieve the goal the way we would approach achieving the goal. Keeping in mind that the individual is more junior to us there’s quite a good chance that, not only do they not know how you would go about achieving it, but they also have no clue how to achieve the objective at all.

Recalling my insight on what holds people back from achieving goals, it’s often that they don’t know where to start or how to progress it.

So, my third insight is that I use Timeframe to prompt an exploratory discussion on how the individual plans to achieve the objective. If they have some ideas, great.

Let’s explore them and close any gaps. If they haven’t got the first idea, I ask questions to prompt their thinking. By the end of the discussion, we have created a plan, with interim delivery and/or check-in dates, increasing the likelihood of the objective being achieved by 31October. What also becomes apparent is whether the objective really is attainable in the timeframe, linking back to Insight #2.

This approach also incorporates Insight #1 –closing out the feedback loop, by asking probing, open-ended questions. The individual’s answers help me to understand what they took from my communication and allows me to clarify any misunderstandings.  

Conclusion

I had coffee recently with someone and the subject of SMART came up. Their immediate response, as a manager, was ‘I hate SMART!’.

This is quite a common response, unfortunately. However, if we reframe SMART to being a framework that allows us to have a two-way conversation, we get different outcomes. We get to: explore assumptions being made, mine and the individual’s; realign assumptions and expectations; explore and map out a pathway to achieving the objective; have a real conversation around the potential constraints and dependencies and agree the supports required, to ensure we stack success in favour of the individual achieving their objectives.

This takes a bit longer, and more effort, than ‘going through the motions’ but the payoff is huge – for the individual, team, you, the business and clients/customers.

Irial O’Farrell is author of: SMART Objective Setting for Managers, Values – Not Just for the Office Wall Plaque, and The Manager’s Dilemma – How to Empower Your Team’s Problem Solving, (12 September 2021).

She is an executive coach, leadership development and performance expert, an accredited master in change management. www.evolutionconsulting.ie

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