For years I’ve been reading to 3rd & 4th grade students at the Marlboro Elementary School, my amazing local public school. It’s a tiny school that currently serves around 100 pre-kindergarten – 8th grade children (4 – 13 years old).
I read during noon recess, after outdoor play. A student rings the bell and children stream back into their classrooms. But before they get their lunch and listen to me, they sit on the floor in a circle and share answers to a simple question:
What went well during recess?
As I listen, it’s clear that kids feel comfortable talking about how they worked together. They build forts, play games, and do all the things kids have done for years when they play in the wooded grounds of our rural school. They don’t talk in generalities. Rather, they name specific classmates and thank them for collaboration, support, and the fun they created together.
The power of public appreciations These simple public appreciations create a palpable social awareness in the group. You can see relationships strengthen as one child acknowledges another. The children’s interactions are shaped by largely invisible norms of behavior that the teacher expertly introduces during the first few weeks of school.
It’s not all sweetness and light. Inevitably some conflicts come up too. So the teacher sometimes lets the kids delve into what happened, and sometimes reserves discussion for a private chat later in the day.
What strikes me is how easy this is to do and how powerful the results. Group sharing like this was absent during my school years. Instead, our teachers encouraged us to compete with each other academically. They never asked us to talk about positive things our classmates had done.
Appreciative Inquiry Surprisingly, asking what is currently being done well is the first crucial step of Appreciative Inquiry(AI): a powerful process for exploring productive organizational change. AI starts with a focus on what works in an organization, not what needs fixing. Stories also play an important role.
Specific Measurable Achievable/Attainable Realistic Time-bound/Timely
The idea being that if you want to set a goal/objective then it should be all of these things…”
So far, so good.
“…which is cute, but wrong.”
Which is where I disagree.
Why? I’ve spent years running personal introspectives: conference sessions for developing plans for personal change that incorporate SMART objectives. Having experienced the development of thousands of these plans, I’ve found that most people struggle to build SMART change goals.
For example, people will say:
“I want to stay in touch with the lab managers in my region.” Rather than “I will schedule a weekly visit to the private lab community website from now on, review the updates, and participate appropriately.”
“I want to treat my staff better.” Rather than “In the next two weeks, I will implement weekly one-on-ones with my direct reports, and give them my undivided attention during our meetings.”
“I will get over my fear of public speaking.” Rather than “I will join my local Toastmasters club when it starts up again in the fall.”
Bearing this in mind, let’s go through Neil’s points:
“My major issue is, that by the very nature of their construct, they’re limiting. They focus you on committing to do one thing, when another – which you may not have come across yet – might be three, four or five times better.”
Um, SMART is not about developing the “best” objectives. You need a separate process for that. Once you’ve come up with relevant goals, SMART becomes a valuable tool to check to see they are actionable. [OMG, I used “actionable” in a post, but it seemed like the right word to use at the time.]
“The evidence to this is in the million plus performance conversations that happen each year when an employee is explaining that they didn’t do the five objectives they agreed, but have delivered x amount of other things that have added greater value.“
The problem described here is nothing to do with SMART. It’s with managerial process that develops goals for employees but doesn’t include any feedback mechanisms to ensure goals remain relevant. SMART is a tool for testing proposed objectives to see if they’re actionable [did it again]. Period. Blaming SMART instead of poor managerial practices that ignore the reality that continual organizational and environmental change requires timely evaluation of responsive employee goals is like blaming your sneakers for being uncomfortable because they’re red.
“[SMART goals are] entirely left brain and play to a Taylorian vision of business and process. They are the antithesis of creativity, innovation, and the search for exponential value add. It is hard to get passionate, emotional or excited about a SMART goal, because they’re intended to lock down your energy, rather than unleash it.”
Nope. Nothing in SMART prevents you from developing goals that are creative, innovative, and capable of exponential value add. If you decide that having Bono spearhead your product launch is going to make your company the next unicorn, SMART is simply going to remind you that your bold objective should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. While it may be a downer to realize you’ll need a million bucks you don’t have to get Sting involved, you could otherwise waste a lot of time chasing an impossible dream.
“Finally, [SMART goals are] linked to a performance management culture and approach that we’ve all pretty much decided is dead, done and buried – I know, I’ve been writing about it for ten years. The idea that there are such things as performance cycles, that we have the level of predictability and that we can improve organisational performance by setting a bunch of spurious goals and having a bad conversation once, twice or even four times a year through a “performance” review is nothing more than a hopeful, collective misnomer.”
OK, it should be clear by now that I’m separating the limited applicability of SMART goals from the dysfunctional cultures Neil describes where they’re “used” inappropriately. All objectives are developed and exist in a context. Contexts change continuously, so a goal that’s relevant and useful one day can become obsolete overnight. To remain effective, employee and organizational goals need to be responsive to circumstances. Like Neil, I’ve no problem criticizing inflexible performance cycles, spurious, outdated goals, and ineffectual fixed performance reviews.
Just don’t lump SMART goals in with all the dysfunctional managerial gobbledygook. SMART goals aren’t stupid when they’re 1) personal 2) the outcome of effective strategy & analysis, and 3) evaluated, modified, and discarded when appropriate. The sole function of SMART is to check that goals — developed by good process and continually reviewed and updated — are actionable. [Third time’s the charm.]
After over thirty years working with organizations, I think that it’s possible to change organizational culture — but it’s far from easy.
First, many organizations are in denial that there’s any kind of problem with their culture, and getting leadership to think otherwise is an uphill or hopeless battle.
Second, if an organization does get to the point where “we want to change our culture”, there’s rarely an explicit consensus of what “needs to be” or “might be” changed.
Third, culture is an emergent property of the interactions between people in the organization, not a linear consequence of deeply buried assumptions that can be challenged and “treated” in isolation. Prescriptive, formulaic approaches to culture change, are therefore rarely if ever successful.
Finally, organizational culture self-perpetuates through a complex web of rules and relationships whose very interconnectedness resist change; even if you have a clear idea of what you want to do, there are no uncoupled places to start.
“Culture is an emergent set of patterns that are formed from the interactions between people.These patterns cannot be reverse engineered. Once they exist you need to change the interactions between people if you want to change the patterns.” —Chris Corrigan, The myth of managed culture change
This is why process tools like those included in The Power of Participation are so important. Imposed, top down culture change regimes attempt to force people to do things differently, a process that Chris describes as “cruel and violent”. Participation process tools that allow people to safely explore interacting in new ways allow organizations to transform through the resulting emergent changes that interaction tools facilitate and support.
Image attribution: Animated gif excerpt from “Lawyers in Love” by Jackson Browne