Don’t get SMART, get DUMB too

SMART objective in sight
The author with a SMART objective in sight

It’s still, just about, the beginning of 2017 and definitely time – if you haven’t already done so – to set some objectives for the year. Set them already? Done your tax return? All set for February’s challenges? Good for you – this post might not be for you, however if you still have a nagging sense of self-doubt after all that efficiency, read on…

I’m one of those people who finds objective-setting doesn’t sit that well with me. It’s not that I don’t have plenty of long and short term objectives, some of which I even manage to achieve. To blow my own trumpet for a bit, I entered a half marathon last year (see photo) with the aim of running it in under 2 hours, which I achieved – also achieving the unintended goal of being a smug, self-congratulating git for a good few weeks afterwards.

So far, so SMART – my objective was

Specific – run the Royal Parks Half Marathon in under 2 hours;

Measurable – race time and also training times, giving me an idea that it was

Achievable – although I hadn’t done any distance running for a while I only needed to shave about 3 minutes off my previous time so although this was a mere 2.5% improvement on the previous time it was pretty unambitious although as over six years had elapsed since the previous half accounting for advancing age maybe have been quite sensible;

Relevant – within the context of a more general aim to get fitter, highly relevant;

Time-bound – the race was on a specific date, which made planning my training and coping with various injuries on the way quite straightforward.

SMART objectives are fine for things that are, well, specific but the problem comes when you expand the scope. A recent piece on Open for Ideas, suggests that SMART objectives are the enemy of creativity. I agree wholeheartedly but I also think their practical use is limited. For example, I could set a broader health objective for 2017 but if I start to do that in a SMART framework it becomes either unworkably complicated or meaningless e.g:

Objective: improve my overall health

Specific? Not really. Measurable? Yes, but only if I limit the scope to something like running a half marathon in less than 1 hour 50 minutes as one of a number of objectives. So I could end up with a whole series of objectives that make up my overall health objective covering gym attendance, diet, sleep, mindfulness courses or whatever. Fine if your personal development goals include either being able to hold numerous objectives in your head or reducing your entire existence to an elaborate spreadsheet.

Something else is needed and I have formulated a set of DUMB objectives – Diffuse, Unmeasurable, Magnificent and Boundaryless. Everyone should have these and, if you think about it, you probably do already. DUMB objectives aren’t really objectives in the SMART sense as they are designed to be the polar opposite. For organisations they are closer to a vision statement or a set of principles or values that encapsulate what it stands for.  For individuals, the DUMB objectives reflect what makes a person tick.

Let’s unpack these a bit:

Diffuse – DUMB objectives are all about the big stuff so we need objectives that are the opposite of specific. If you’re thinking that this means we don’t have or need an actual objective, that’s not what I’m getting at. Starbucks’ mission statement is a good example:

To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time

The first part is certainly diffuse – since there is no one definition of what ‘human spirit’ means – and even though the second part sounds like a measure, it doesn’t relate in any quantifiable way to the first part. It is therefore admirably…

Unmeasurable – DUMB objectives don’t fit on a spreadsheet: like a good vision statement they are a statement of why we exist, not what we will achieve by when. (I’m seriously hoping that Starbucks don’t have someone in Seattle who’s got a computer model of how many frappuccinos it takes to inspire and nurture one average human’s spirit.)

Magnificent – this is highly subjective: I think there’s something quietly magnificent about Unilever’s vision ‘to make sustainable living commonplace’; other people might want something like Toyota’s ambition to ‘lead the way to the future of mobility, enriching lives around the world with the safest and most responsible ways of moving people’. In fact Toyota’s statement is almost literally…

Boundaryless – since it applies to lives around the world. However, the boundaryless quality of a good DUMB objective means that it is not constrained by any particular situation: e.g. Starbucks’ inspiration and nurturing should apply both to me as a customer when I buy a coffee and if I were a major element of their global supply chain (which even with my level of coffee consumption, I’m not).

Mixing it up

Organisations and people need a mix of SMART and DUMB: choose SMART objectives for well-defined problems and use the DUMB objectives in your personal or organisation vision statements to guide you through the times when problems are less well defined. And if you don’t have a mission statement, set a SMART objective to develop one!

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