Systems thinking and complexity science
If you’re working toward some sort of collective goals — as an organization, network or even as an individual — you’ve most likely been asked to use SMART goal setting to frame your task. While SMART is a popular tool for management consultants and scholars, does it make sense when you’re looking to make inroads on complex, unique or highly volatile problems or is the answer in the systems we create to advance goals in the first place?
Goal setting is nearly everywhere.
Globally we had the UN-backed Millennium Development Goals and now have the Sustainable Development Goals and a look at the missions and visions of most corporations, non-profits, government departments and universities and you will see language that is framed in terms of goals, either explicitly or implicitly.
A goal for this purposes is:
goal |ɡōl| noun: the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result • the destination of a journey
Goal setting is the process of determining what it is that you seek to achieve and usually combined with mapping some form of strategy to achieve the goal. Goals can be challenging on their own when a single person is determining what it is that they want, need or feel compelled to do, even more so when aggregated to the level of the organization or a network.
How do you keep people focused on the same thing?
A look at the literature finds a visible presence of one approach: setting SMART goals. SMART goals reflect an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound (or Timely in some examples). The origin of SMART has been traced back to an article in the 1981 issue of the AMA’s journal Management Review by George Doran (PDF). In that piece, Doran comments how unpleasant it is to set objectives and that this is one of the reasons organizations resist it. Yet, in an age where accountability is held in high regard the role of the goal is not only strategic, but operationally critical to attracting and maintaining resources.
SMART goals are part of a larger process called performance management, which is a means by enhancing collective focus and alignment of individuals within an organization . Dartmouth College has a clearly articulated explanation of how goals are framed within the context of performance management:
” Performance goals enable employees to plan and organize their work in accordance with achieving predetermined results or outcomes. By setting and completing effective performance goals, employees are better able to:
- Develop job knowledge and skills that help them thrive in their work, take on additional responsibilities, or pursue their career aspirations;
- Support or advance the organization’s vision, mission, values, principles, strategies, and goals;
- Collaborate with their colleagues with greater transparency and mutual understanding;
- Plan and implement successful projects and initiatives; and
- Remain resilient when roadblocks arise and learn from these setbacks.”
Heading somewhere, destination unknown
Evaluation professionals and managers alike love SMART goals and performance measurement. What’s not to like about something that specifically outlines what is to be done in detail, the date its required by, and in a manner that is achievable? It’s like checking off all the boxes in your management performance chart all at once! Alas, the problems with this approach are many.
Specific is pretty safe, so we won’t touch that. It’s good to know what you’re trying to achieve.
But what about measurable? This is what evaluators love, but what does it mean in practice? Metrics and measures reflect a certain type of evaluative approach and require the kind of questions, data collection tools and data to work effectively. If the problem being addressed isn’t something that lends itself to quantification using measures or data that can easily define a part of an issue, then measurement becomes inconclusive at best, useless at worst.
What if you don’t know what is achievable? This might be because you’ve never tried something before or maybe the problem set has never existed before now.
How do you know what realistic is? This is tricky because, as George Bernard Shaw wrote in Man and Superman:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
This issue of reasonableness is an important one because innovation, adaptation and discovery are not able reason, but aspiration and hope. Were it for reasonableness, we might have never achieved much of what we’ve set out to accomplish in terms of being innovative, adaptive or creative.
Reasonableness is also the most dangerous for those seeking to make real change and do true innovation. Innovation is not often reasonable, nor are the asks ‘reasonable.’ Most social transformations were not because of reasonable. Women’s rights to vote or The rights of African Americans to be recognized and treated as human beings in the United States are but two examples from the 20th century that are able lack of ‘reasonableness’.
Lastly, what if you have no idea what the timeline for success is? If you’ve not tackled this before, are working on a dynamic problem, or have uncertain or unstable resources it might be impossible to say how long something will take to solve.
Rethinking goals and their evaluation
One of the better discussions on goals, goal setting and the hard truths associated with what it means to pursue a goal is from James Clear, who draws on some of the research on strategy and decision making to build his list of recommendations. Clear’s summary pulls together a variety of findings that show how individuals construct goals and seek to achieve them and the results suggest that the problem is less about the strategy used to reach a goal, but more on the goals themselves.
What is most relevant for organizations is the concept of ‘rudders and oars‘, which is about creating systems and processes for action and less on the goal itself. In complex systems, our ability to exercise control is highly variable and constrained and goals provide an illusory sense that we have control. So either we fail to achieve our goals or we set goals that we can achieve, which may not be the most important thing we aim for. We essentially rig our system to achieve something that might be achievable, but utterly not important.
Drawing on this work, we are left to re-think goals and commit to the following:
- Commit to a process, not a goal
- Release the need for immediate results
- Build feedback loops
- Build better systems, not better goals
To realize this requires an adaptive approach to strategy and evaluation where the two go hand-in-hand and are used systemically. It means pushing aside and rejecting more traditional performance measurement models for individuals and organizations and developing more fine-tuned, custom evaluative approaches that link data to decisions and decisions to actions in an ongoing manner.
It means thinking in systems, about systems and designing for ways to do both on an ongoing, not episodic manner.
The irony is, by minimizing or rejecting the use of goals, you might better achieve a goal of a more impactful, innovative, responsive and creative organization with a real mission for positive change.
Image credit: Author