In praise of dumb objectives

After a recent development session that was both inspirational and different, I was rather horrified to be shuffled into a room to prepare an action plan based on SMART objectives. Not only did the idea of an “action plan” seem entirely incongruous with material centred on a raised state of awareness of ourselves and the effects of our behaviour on others, but SMART sounded like fingernails on a blackboard. We don’t use blackboards anymore.

The life of a SMART objective is rather Hobbesian – solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. It doesn’t stand a chance.

It can be as Specific as it is able but in turn will be less able to take into account complex and ever-evolving circumstances that will impact the ability to deliver on the promise. It might be Measurable but without pure data, uncontaminated by others, it is unrecognisable. In a world suffocated by data, there is always a stat to support its success, and a stat for its failure. It might be considered Achievable but in reality it will either have been too easy, or too difficult – as the aim states, by definition it will usually be the former. But then again if the measurement is flawed, how will it prove itself anyway? It may strive to be Realistic but faces a fundamental philosophical challenge over the idea of reality. If “there are no facts, only interpretations” (as Nietzsche might say) it’s in some deep water. And finally it can be Time-bound, but that depends on the unfolding complexity of the journey – our map of the unknown is only good until the first bend.

But this isn’t another hopeless circular punch-up like that over the annual appraisal where no-one seems to like them nor have a workable alternative. Force-feeding an acronym, how about DUMB objectives?

The objective could be Dynamic, embodying change, able to sustain twists and turns, to adapt to the contributions of those we engage with and the effects of other uncontrollable circumstances. Even Chinese butterflies. It could be elastic and nimble, rather than hewn from granite. It might even acknowledge the likely contribution of others rather than being stapled to our forehead. It could be Understandable, stated in simple, human terms, rather than “business” guff – so we are able to relate to it, as can everyone we share it with. The ultimate test – you should be able to show it to a friend in the café, and they get it without the need for a rambling contextual explanation. Imagine if it was Motivating, it made us want to try harder, achieve more, improve ourselves, benefit others rather than sigh under the weight of the expectation, or dread having to do what’s necessary – to make you want to get out of bed, not get back in. And consider if it were Believable, having a direct relationship with us and what we do, capable of an emotional commitment, rather than a quest dreamed up by a corporate gandalf.

We might then be able to look at aims that we think are reasonable, flexible, will stretch us and we’ll enjoy achieving.

Being free of snappy acronyms might be enough to make this possible, but I didn’t start it.

While it might be saying that SMART objectives are dumb its not saying DUMB objectives are smart only that it might be smart to stop thinking SMART is smart and considering that a DUMB approach might not be so dumb and might be smart. Could be a tricky sell, though.


2 thoughts on “In praise of dumb objectives

  1. I always snarked that SMART goals were really DUMB (Demotivating, Unnecessary, Mandatory Bull***t). Your DUMB acronym is more constructive than mine; I like it 🙂

  2. SMART makes me shudder. So mechanistic.
    If you can’t agree something that is mutually meaningful – what’s the point? If it’s meaningful, all the other stuff that needs to will flow from that.

    So brilliantly said Neil.

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