The movement towards outcomes-based approaches to planning, particularly in the Victorian Public Sector, is a new approach for many departments and the programs that sit within them. Current, best-practice approaches to setting outcomes emphasise that they should be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Assigned, Realistic and Timebound. The SMART principle can be used across a range of scales, from personal or professional development outcomes, to policy or program design. However, as recently reported in the context of fitness and exercise, SMART goals can be not just ineffective, but potentially even a deterrent to improving performance.
While the acronym is simple, its application is not always so straightforward. How the acronym is used in defining outcomes is crucial for performance, but there are other factors as well.
In developing SMART outcomes, there is a need to ensure that the S, M and T are underpinned by the A and the R. However, in a number of policy areas there is uncertainty about what are realistic outcomes, and who should be assigned accountability. Begin by considering what you can control and influence, especially within your time frames for short-term and intermediate outcomes. Be clear on those factors that you can’t control but could impact on achievement of your outcomes.
Focus your effort on the things you need to do to achieve your short-term and intermediate outcomes, but also focus on the process you are using to get there. Be open to different activities before identifying your preferred approach, then regularly check in and consider whether what you are doing is still considered the best way to achieve your outcomes. Be prepared to sometimes take a backward step before you can move forward. Create a culture or attitude where it’s ok to experiment and learn so that you can adjust your approach as you go. This is essential for ensuring your SMART outcomes encourage and support improved performance.
Problems with the current approach of setting goals include focusing on immediate or short-term outcomes (like losing 1kg this week), diverting attention away from strategy development (aiming to get through a 20 minute run rather than understanding how to pace yourself), and inhibiting learning (achieving less knowledge of how to exercise appropriately).