The Fallacy of SMART Goals

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I recently read a news story about how to keep our New Year’s resolutions. The article was about the use of simple time management techniques, the center of which was setting SMART goals. SMART is an acronym that’s been around for decades and stands for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable Relevant, and Time-bound. Sometimes other words are used, such as assignable, realistic, timely, and testable.

It sounds good. It sounds useful. But simplifying time management into an acronym reduces the complexity of managing our projects to a seemingly simple formula, one that can prove frustrating. It reminds me of countless bosses and sponsors I’ve had who said, “Can’t you just tell me when the project will be done? Use SMART goals to help you figure it out!” Don’t get me wrong. I think this acronym is useful as a high-level framework. But if our goals too high-level, we run the risk of never achieving them. It’s just not that easy. Let me give you some examples using a project to build a house.

Specific. What does it mean to be specific? How are specific goals different from measurable or achievable or time-bound goals? In our house-building example house specifications are specific, as the name implies. There are specs for the exterior and the interior. Specs for landscaping, the roof, the plumbing, electrical and so forth. How specific do they need to be? Specs without detail might be helpful as an overview, but not for the actual construction of the house. We need to drill to down for the specs to be workable.

Measurable. To say that the house will be complete in 18 months, for example, is measurable. It’s a good starting point. As the homeowner I can start planning when to put my current house on the market or end my lease, when to get current utilities canceled and the new ones turned on, when to arrange for movers and so forth. But when is done really done? I’ve been told a house was done before the gas was hooked up. I was told a house was done, but movers wouldn’t unload their truck because the floors had been finished too recently. We need to get the detail to make important decisions. And as PMs we need to determine who will decide which measures to use and whether they make sense from a project perspective.

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Achievable. Achievable is another one of the squishy terms in the SMART acronym. It’s one of those words that means different things to different project stakeholders. I suspect I’m not the only PM to be told to “just make it happen.” Or “Where’s your can-do attitude?” I can certainly make almost any project happen, but at what cost? How much risk will the organization/sponsor/end users tolerate? Achieving an end quickly might mean making compromises. Who will make those decisions? What about trust and team dynamics? All these components of achievability need to be considered. And that takes time and lots of discussion.

Relevant. I’m not sure I understand what a relevant goal is. There are so many different stakeholders on our projects, some of whom do not find the project or its end product relevant at all. Hopefully it’s relevant to the organization, helping it meet its business objectives. But we all know that’s not always the case. I suspect many of us have worked on someone’s “pet project.” Or have had some stakeholder groups resist implementation. Or have managed projects highly relevant to end users but not to higher levels of management and vice versa. Getting agreement on what is relevant and how the project’s relevancy fits in with all the other projects is no easy task.

Time-bound. This usually means attaching a timeframe to the goal. I struggle with the difference between time-bound and all the other goals. I think they are intertwined. As a PM I worked on projects that were relevant only if they could be implemented in enough time to get goods from sourced locations to retail stores and on the shelves in time for the holiday season. Is that time-bound? Or relevant? Or I suspect, a bit of all the components of the acronym.

Which brings me to my original point. SMART goals are useful as a framework. But the key to time management success is going from a high-level overview to subsequently lower and lower levels of detail. We can certainly start with SMART. But we need to drill down to really achieve our goals.

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