Somewhat tragically, I love a good management mnemonic or anagram. I also know many people who shudder at the thought of them. In a convenient world your view of such things would say something about your capability as a manager or supervisor, but the world is rarely that simple.

I’ve known well-meaning managers who rely too heavily on text book models and academic frameworks, and fail to understand the guiding principles behind the various models; they end up creating soulless work cultures. Equally I have known hugely pragmatic managers who would rather chew off their own fingers than use a management technique, even though it would save them time or reduce mistakes.

As most people who have dieted know extreme lurches to a fad diet are regularly sustainable; the key usually lies in balance. The same is true of most management models and I’m going to illustrate this with the ever-popular (?) SMART approach to objective/goal setting.


Let’s start by reminding ourselves of what SMART stands for. I realise that many people have their favourites, which is usually the first one they were shown, but for the purposes of this article I will use the version on the right.

Before moving on I’d like to address a couple of points that this has no doubt already raised.

Firstly, I haven’t met anyone who uses anything other than Specific so that’s a good start.

I’m aware that the most popular ‘M’ is measurable and I was fine with that up until a frankly torturous debate with a Sixth Form Physics teacher on a workshop. His view boiled down to, ‘…as long as the goal is measurable you don’t actually have to measure it.’ Part of my frustration I think was that this was the physics teacher not the philosophy teacher.

From that day on I have used measured since this strongly suggests that we have actually found and quantified a measure. For those who are happy with measurable, let me use an example to illustrate my point.  Suppose we have a goal around increasing revenue – very simple and, we’ll all agree, easily measurable. If we agree it is measurable but do not actually apply a measure then when it comes to review time we could have a less than positive exchange.

Me: I did it, I increased revenue by £5,000 in the first quarter!

You: You did, but it’s not enough.

Me: But I met my goal.

You: You didn’t, I needed you to increase revenue by at least £15,000 in that time.

I feel deflated at best. At worst, if we already had a poor relationship I may well now believe that you set me up to fail, since you obviously knew what you wanted but didn’t tell me.

I know ‘A’ is one of the most varied components of the SMART acronym. I have heard attainable, achievable, accepted (by a particularly weary manager), appropriate, ambitious, aligned, etc. My preference is Agreed because it forces two-way debate, letting both parties discuss things like relevant measures, resources and timeframes. To me the agreement is all about shared understanding.

The ‘R’ component also has some popular alternatives; notably Relevant. For me, the best option here is Realistic and this is to prompt a conversation about resources. Almost any activity, task or objective is realistic if you have the resources and even simple jobs become more unrealistic without resources.

One final thing, can we stop using Achievable/Attainable and Realistic? I’m happy to be as pedantic as the next person and I know there is a semantic difference between the words, but, in practice, if an objective is unachievable then, by definition, it is unrealistic and if it is unrealistic it is almost certainly unachievable. Isn’t it better to have two clearly different components to the acronym?

Finally, everyone seems to use some form of time-related descriptor for ‘T’, although I have seen a ‘T for tangible’.

Underlying Principles

Now that we have a workable definition, let’s remind ourselves of the underlying principles. Why do we use SMART to help with goal-setting? It principally comes down to three things:

  1. Clarity of communication
  2. Focus of resources
  3. Individual motivation

Returning to our two managerial types: if we consider this in the first instance with our ‘by the book’ manager then they may achieve 1, should achieve 2, but are very unlikely to achieve 3. In addition, the world of work is full of change so a rigidly enforced objective can suck the spirit out of the most positive of workers. In addition, having a flexible approach is regularly touted as one of the most important skills for the next decade of work.

The key here is summarised by Douglas Bader; “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men”. I’d add the word ‘unquestioning’ in front of obedience, but otherwise it is spot on. In particular the measures need to be realistic and the discussion around resources needs to be honest.

With our ‘maverick’ manager who refuses help from any acronyms simply because they are ‘management-speak’ the key is to not refer to the acronym at all. Simple questions should suffice:

Should the goal/task be clear and unambiguous? i.e. specific.

Should it be clear what standard of performance is expected? i.e. measures.

When explaining a goal/task should the employee have the opportunity for a two-way conversation? i.e. agreed.

Should we talk about the resources available to complete a goal/task? i.e realistic.

Should we tell an employee the deadline for a goal/task? i.e. timescale.

It is hard to argue with the logic of the above questions, irrespective of the source.

Most acronyms and mnemonics in management have a purpose and exist to remind us of good practice and/or efficient ways of doing things. Following them slavishly without imagination and flexibility is as bad as obstinately dismissing them without first understanding how they might help.

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