SMART objectives are the enemy of creativity. Here’s the alternative.
I help my clients build a strong relationship with creativity. A relationship describes the qualities of a connection or interaction and creativity means the art of solving problems under conditions of uncertainty. So when I see business practices that screw with that relationship by incentivising the avoidance of problems and prime people to reject uncertainty, you can see why I’d take issue.
Consider the most common objective setting framework. This framework calls for objectives to be SMART which means:
- TIME BOUND
Specificity I have no problem with. Relevance is also fine. My issues are with the M, the A and, to a lesser extent, the T.
Initially, this seems reasonable. After all, we do need some idea of when we will be done with any given objective. The problem is that this requires us to predict the future.
Making predictions in real life, in conditions of uncertainty, is very hard if not impossible. If you’re working on something even slightly complex, something that requires creativity, then you can’t give a hard guarantee on how long it will take unless you do one or both of the following:
1. Give yourself loads of buffer, thus making your plans less ambitious and reducing the challenge (this is a flow undermining creativity killer)
2. Give yourself lots of wiggle room on what success looks like, thus undermining the S of SPECIFIC
Again, seemingly benign. But this little smiling assassin is damaging to anything that comes from your implicit system, anything notably new or novel and anything that’s just tricky to measure. And it falls foul of Goodhart’s Law.
Goodhart’s Law states that any metric that becomes a target ceases to be a good metric. This is a law about unintended consequences and it’s well worth our consideration. For instance, we’ve all heard of these workplace weightloss contests where people are encouraged to lose weight as a team, right? Weight is a proxy for health (more on proxies in a moment) and it’s often a good one. But when weight becomes the target, not health, people can game the system in unhealthy ways like starving themselves or using diuretics. Now weight is no longer a good measure.
And this isn’t an optional element either. What this says to people is that anything that cannot be measured cannot be an objective. This leads to something called the Availability Bias where we overvalue that which is easy to see and, conversely, undervalue that which is hidden. SMART objectives, therefore, overvalue the well known and undervalue the new and unusual. Bad for creativity.
Finally a note on substitution. In terms of mental biases this one is a doozy. Frequently we are faced with difficult questions like “how are you feeling about our progress?” and “how long will the rest of this job take?”. Both these questions are big, hard questions to answer so we tend to switch out the real answer with an easier to express alternative. So rather than how we feel about the progress so far we tell people how we feel about the progress in the last hour or two. We genuinely can’t recall how we feel about all of it! And since estimation of progress is hard we don’t do that and instead we answer the “how long?” question with a rough guess based on how many tasks we can recall we have to do.
These sneaky mental processes are dangerous because not only do they lead to bad data being shared, we don’t know we are doing it. When we insist that all objectives be SMART we almost always fall into using proxies in place of real measures. So productivity is replaced by volume of output and effectiveness replaced with efficiency. We assume that if someone is busy they’re producing value and if someone is sitting and thinking they are doing nothing.
Final note: if you think your company uses busy as a proxy for doing something useful give me a call. You need to change this.
It may be surprising for a coach to have a problem with this particular element since coaching is all about achievable aims. The difference is that, in coaching, the only person assessing you is you. When coaching, if the coachee doesn’t hit a target they’re aiming for, this isn’t seen as failure, it’s seen as information guiding us on how to make improvements. In SMART objectives, this is never the case.
In appraisals, you’re being judged externally and a failed objective has consequences. Hence the need for an objective to be achievable undermines ambition. If you know that achieving your objectives could be the difference between a promotion and bonus, and risking losing your job, it’s the smart thing to do to set objectives that you know you can hit, leaving little room for improvement and learning.
This is especially if you consider that new tasks are being pressed on workers every day. It makes sense for any smart employee to bag him or herself nice, fuzzy objectives with plenty of wiggle room and pork. Objectives like these favour safe, self-preserving thinking.
SMART Objectives Hate Creativity
To achieve SMART objectives you need to predict the future by controlling for anything unexpected, avoid anything that’s hard to measure, and ensure that you only agree to something you already know you can do with plenty of room to wiggle.
In such circumstances how can we expect creativity which means solving problems under conditions of uncertainty and going beyond what can be predicted? This system is designed to drive out uncertainty and avoid encountering problems that don’t already have a set solution. Furthermore, such a system is terribly bad at properly valuing anything it didn’t expect to see.
Perhaps even worse, this system is antithetical to real world learning. Learning, outside of a controlled curriculum is a process of exploration, of going into the unknown. Learning means being open to failure, open to risk, biting off more than you can chew and developing stronger jaws as a result. Nobody who is motivated to achieve all their SMART objectives is going to allow themselves any of these necessary elements and so they will not learn. SMART objectives make people dumb.
No Extraordinary Performers Please, We’re a Business
In addition to undermining learning, SMART objectives allow no space for the extraordinary. Humans achieve extraordinary results in any field when they are intrinsically motivated and, according to Steven Kotler in Rise of the Superman, working at about 4% beyond their comfort zone. This is when they are able to enter a Flow State.
Humans achieve extraordinary results in any field when they are intrinsically motivatedClick To Tweet
Selecting for Selfish Mediocrity
My final gripe is this: SMART objectives select for selfish mediocrity. Notice how none of these SMART requirements are focused on cooperation, generosity, sharing the glory and caring about others? Clever employees know how to work this system. They know that they are rewarded for hitting their objectives far more than they are harmed by others missing theirs, and that extra effort is rarely rewarded concordant with that effort. In fact, overachieving on one objective at the cost of missing another is likely to end in a net disbenefit to the employee even if the results are favourable for the company.
Any business that relies heavily on this type of measurement is destined to be dominated by those who avoid risks, prefer the known to the unknown, and always look after number one.
Alternative: getting into the game
I hope I’ve convinced you that being SMART isn’t so smart. Certainly, it isn’t enough if you want a creative culture. That’s why I have designed an alternative set of objectives which I call GAMER.
GAMER stands for:
- Growth Focused
GAMER objectives, unlike SMART objectives, are all about empowerment.
Being Growth Focused, GAMER places emphasis on learning and challenging yourself. Rather than measuring you against how well you met some spurious prediction, GAMER values progress and change. This rewards a Growth Mindset, turns failure into information and disappointments into opportunities. Under this way of thinking, we do not discourage people from accepting or speaking unpleasant truths and we allow real processing of real information instead of cherry picking the best data to present ourselves in the best light.
GAMER objectives are Adaptive, that means we trust the individual to monitor his or her own progress and alter course if needs be. By adjusting course constantly, we allow people to stay at the optimum level for performance, the Flow Channel between challenge and boredom. We also allow flexibility in quality. Instead of working to a safe minimum we can overreach but pull back, or take a leap and shake it off if it doesn’t work out.
Meaningful objectives are intrinsically motivated, autotelic. Rather than focusing on what someone can do we focus on what they want to bring to the team. This is hard work because many of us struggle to express that. We confuse what we want to bring to a given subject with selfish desires. We feel shameful for doing what makes us happy. But here’s the sneaky thing that few people know: if someone realises that they can help in a meaningful way, the drive to do so is irresistible. All you need to do is help a person find his or her skills, feel confident in them, and then give them a purpose.
Engaging objectives are fun. Why should a company care about making an objective fun? Perhaps I’ll answer with another question: do you care about the objective getting done? If so, making it fun is about the best way to ensure that happens. GAMER objectives realise that fun is important to high performance.
By Responsive, we mean that a GAMER objective needs to be connected to the wider world, shared and owned not just by one person but with a sense of collective responsibility and concern. Creativity is a team sport, so it stands to reason that we must recognise the value of others when we set personal objectives. A Responsive objective doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it flexes to the needs of the collective and ensures the end goal of the group remains the North Star of the team.
We must recognise the value of others when we set personal objectivesClick To Tweet
Can you be a SMART GAMER?
I know that HR processes change slowly and that it can be hard to get a new idea through the door. That’s why GAMER Objectives can be used alongside SMART ones, even if they remain something only you and your team use. Adding the GAMER elements to your current appraisal system will give people the opportunity to think and talk about the things that SMART objectives ignore. That alone can make a big difference.http://openforideas.org/blog/2017/01/24/smart-objectives-are-the-enemy-of-creativity-heres-the-alternative/https://i1.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/psycho_killer.jpg?fit=1024%2C576https://i1.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/psycho_killer.jpg?resize=150%2C150Corporate Creativityadaptive,creativity,engagement,GAMER,meaningful,objectives. measurement,responsive,SMART