The Catch with SMART

2 years ago   •   5 min read

By Irial O'Farrell

While SMART has long been accepted as the most effective way of setting out objectives, many managers dislike it and often struggle to use SMART in any useful way says Irial O’Farrell of Evolution Consulting in this excerpt from her book, SMART Objective Setting for Managers.



Having looked at the relationship between Job Description and Objectives, as managers, how do we approach the process of setting objectives?  Jenny  has identified three solid objectives for Ray to focus on for the coming period:


  • Be responsible for various outputs for EMEA business units [role specific]
  • Project manage SAP implementation project for the team [business-aligned]
  • Enhance stakeholder management skills [behavioural development]


Jenny feels that succeeding in these three objectives will really boost both Ray’s and the team’s performance in the short-term while enhancing Ray’s career prospects in the longer-term.  So, what does Jenny need to do now?


Having identified his objectives, Jenny could just leave it until she meets with Ray and discusses the objectives with him then.  However, as we will see, Jenny’s understanding of what each of these objectives means and how they will be evaluated might be the same as Ray’s understanding or, much more likely, could be wildly different.  Enter the SMART model, which, as we saw in the Introduction, stands for:


S                                      Specific

M                                     Measurable

A                                      Attainable

R                                      Relevant*

T                                      Timeframe



*Some people use the word Realistic rather than Relevant.  As Realistic is very closely aligned with Attainable, I prefer to use Relevant to allow for a link between the objective and why it matters.


Using SMART has long been accepted as the most effective way of setting out objectives.  However, many managers dislike SMART, so much so that I usually expect a groan or two when I mention the acronym.  What I have noticed is that many managers struggle to use SMART in any useful way, particularly when it comes to behavioural, how objectives.  I find that once they’ve gone through my SMART Objective Setting workshop, they are much clearer on how to use it, both with the WHAT and the HOW objectives, and are much more positive about using SMART.


At the start of the workshop, having checked that participants know what SMART stands for, and regardless of my audience, I ask the group if the following objective is SMART:


“I’m going out, can you do the dishes?”


The conversation usually runs something like this:


Them:        No, there’s no timeframe.

Me:           Okay then, I’ll rephrase:  I’m going out; I’ll be back in an hour.  Can you have the dishes done?


Them:        Yeah, that’s SMART.

Me:           Is it?


Them:        Eh, yeah, it’s SMART.  You have the specific and measurable and the timeframe.  The relevant and attainable are both fine.

Me:           So, is it SMART?


Them:        Yes.

Me:           You’re sure?


Them:        Yep, we’re sure.

Me:           Okay, so hands up; whose idea of doing the dishes is “washing the dishes and letting them drip-dry on the counter”?


The bigger the group, the more likely you are to get a couple of people putting their hands up.


Me:           So, whose idea of doing the dishes is “washing the dishes and drying them”?


Usually, a few hands go up.


Me:           Whose idea of doing the dishes is “washing and drying them and putting them away”?


The majority of hands go up for this one, often along with one or two hands from the previous group with “Oh, that’s what I meant” or “Oh, that’s what I thought you meant” type comments.


Me:           Whose idea is “washing, drying and putting away the dishes and wiping down the counters”?


Usually, the rest of the hands go up on this one, with everyone else in the room feeling like they’ve been shamed by their lack of cleaning prowess.  This one is often accompanied by some knowing laughs, as they now understand why they constantly end up in arguments at home about the dishes being “done”.


In one session, one person didn’t put up their hand so I asked them why, to which they replied, “Oh, my idea of doing the dishes is all of the above and sweeping the floors.”  Upon recovering from my chastisement, I added this option into workshops and, yes, occasionally it does get selected.


One of my all-time favourite responses to this exercise was an exclamation of, “Oh, you want the kitchen cleaned.”  We all fell around the place laughing at the implied nuanced difference between the phrases “doing the dishes” and “cleaning the kitchen”.  To this person, there was clearly a difference.  To the rest of us, they were two ways of saying the same thing.


Once the laughing has settled down, I highlight that SMART can be very effective in setting out and framing an objective.  However, a natural constraint exists when using SMART between two people.  So, care needs to be taken in clearly constructing an objective and ensuring a common understanding between both parties.  Otherwise, issues will arise due to differences in expectations.  If someone initially selected the second dishes option and then changed it to the third option, I highlight the point that, if the manager isn’t clear on what is expected, how can the employee be clear?


I use this example because, regardless of level, everyone can understand and relate to it and it beautifully highlights that, for such a simple task, there are five or six different ways it can be interpreted while looking like a SMART objective.  Here’s how many managers would instinctively set out this objective, using SMART and prior to attending the workshop:


SMART Objective 1: Do the Dishes

Specific:         Do the dishes

Measurable:  Dishes are done

Attainable:                Yes

Relevant:                   Dishes need to be done to be available for the next meal

Timeframe:                1 hour


As we saw above, the expectations around “dishes are done” can vary widely and assuming that both parties have the same understanding of what “dishes are done” means is a recipe for disaster.  For example, if my expectation is that they’ll be washed, dried, put away and the counters wiped down, I’m not going to be very happy when I arrive home and they’re drip-drying on the counter with the counters all dirty.


As a manager, the last thing you want is to set an objective and assume there’s a shared understanding of how the objective’s success will be evaluated, only to find out in six or twelve months’ time, at the review meeting, that you thought the objective was half delivered while the employee thought they nailed it.


The dishes example very neatly highlights the catch with using SMART.  Most of the literature for SMART assumes that it is the individual setting the goal for themselves, e.g. increase your income, lose 10 lbs.  There’s not as much literature for using SMART as a tool for joint goal setting as part of Performance Management and Development.  The assumption is that there is no difference in using the tool for yourself as using it in conjunction with another person.  However, as we saw with even a very simple task, it takes two to tango and different assumptions can lead to broken toes.  Similarly, differing assumptions and expectations can doom objectives from the very start and lead to emotional responses, conflict, withdrawal, and disengagement.  The more complex the objectives, the more compounded these negative impacts can become.  Over time, organisations end up with increased costs associated with underperformance, lack of co-operation, higher employee turnover, and costs of paying twice for the same work to be done or to replace the knowledge and skills lost.


Copyright Irial O’Farrell

Permission has been granted to Decision Magazine to reprint.


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