SMART goals have never existed

by Prof. Dr. Armin Trost

“Cleanliness, punctuality, order.” That’s what you get to read if you take a look at the annual objective setting of many employees of different companies. Clearly what is agreed upon in the context of numerous, complicated, annual performance appraisal interviews has nothing to do with the theory based on which goals should be formulated, i.e. SMART: specific, measurable, accountable, realistic, time-based.

“Neither managers nor employees have comprehended this concept. They do not take the process seriously. How can that be, given all the training and instructions? The appraisal form expressly states that you are supposed to follow the SMART rule.” The shocked reactions sound something like that.

Find the error.

It’s not the fault of the managers and even less the employees. The error is in the process itself.

In numerous areas, the SMART goals concept is simply impossible, and certainly does not make sense.

No amount of training, appeals, manuals, forms, guidelines, etc., will accomplish anything.

Many employees pursue tasks that are to a large degree repetitive. This applies not only to the classic line workers, cashiers, bus drivers, retailers in the department stores, hotline staff, housekeeping at the hotel, but also to teachers, nurses, police officers, etc. They are the ones that keep the business running. They do not pursue individual annual goals. They instead follow overall performance and quality standards. Therein lies a significant difference, that you will realize as soon as you actually try to agree on SMART goals for the next 12 months in January with a representative of the above-mentioned professional groups. The whole thing becomes a farce. Managers tear their hair out. They desperately look for something that could be entered into that (damn) form. The drama ends with the finding that one should simply do his/her work. OK? But the ambitious HR manager doesn’t want to hear that.

Commonly agreed standards on performance or quality, however, are extremely useful.

These are commonly agreed upon job requirements. When are we successful? What does good work actually mean in practice? What determines good performance? The difference with objectives is that they should be reflected regularly, but don’t have to be agreed upon annually. Moreover, these standards rarely affect individual persons, but several employees. All bus drivers, all nurses, all cashiers, all teachers. So why an individual objective setting? Wouldn’t a group meeting about standards be much more sensible?

This is something many companies should think about sometime. With a smart solution (within the meaning of intelligent) you would save a considerable amount of time and avoid irritation.