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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Trainers, SMART Goals and Context


Every time I’m on some kind of management training I have this vague feeling of disconnection. I mean I do assume a trainer is a competent person who saw way more different work environments than I ever would. They also are trained trainers meaning they know all the tricks how work with a group, what are effective learning techniques, how to make training entertaining etc. That’s what I expect after all.

And yet, I can’t help thinking their knowledge is somehow shallow.

To take the first example – for me it’s now time of performance appraisals. I spend long hours (days actually) talking with, and about, managers from my team. One of parts of such appraisals should be goal setting. Now, ask any of those trainers teaching you how to run a good performance appraisal and they would tell you that goals should be SMART.

Great. The problem is pretty few of goals I set are really SMART. Does mean I’m a crappy manager?

Well, many of those goals are hardly measurable. Let me give you an example. I, as a senior manager, care much about building trust relationships with managers in my team because I strongly believe it is a crucial factor of success for the whole organization. How should I, or my boss, set a SMART goal for me in this area? “Gain trust of n managers by the end of the year.” As if it was kind of badge or something. Darn trust isn’t measurable! And even if it was setting such goal would be just dumb. Is getting trust of more people better than getting trust of right people? And how do you define “right people,” huh?

This is exactly the problem of many trainers. They have their recipes. They know how to sell them. The question is: do they care to come down to learn a specific situation, understand a real problem and adjust their tool to a context?

Most likely they don’t.

Thus my vague feeling of disconnection and difficulties whenever I try to apply trainers’ recipes in real-life situations. Well, I don’t really do that but I like to imagine I do and I point every single hole I see in them.

It is a problem of reality. It is so painfully specific. It’s never general. It can’t be described with a set of rules which are always true. Yet I’m being told over and over again there are such rules. Rules, which just work. I would even believe in that but, unfortunately, every time I try to apply them they seem so irrelevant.

What is my lesson today? Understand a context. Many rules may sound reasonable during training but unless you apply the context you can’t judge their real value. And few people are willing to sell you a difficult truth: it’s never about recipes; it’s always about people who use them.

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in: personal development

7 comments… add one

  • Iain Millar August 2, 2011, 12:17 am

    This makes so much sense on a practical level. I have never managed to get to the root of this issue and find a solution: the closest was one manager who agreed that the only way to objectively measure a subjective goal was by carrying out a 360 degree survey at the start of the review period and then again at the end. It worked but was very costly in time.

    Your general principle is also valid: the guy who took my prince 2 training course knew how to teach to pass the exam but his practical knowledge of running projects was….limited.

  • Pawel Brodzinski August 3, 2011, 12:22 am

    @Iain: If you ask about solution I think coaching is a way to go. Unfortunately usually the best candidates for coaches are inside the organization — they know the context very well. I say unfortunately because most likely they aren’t valued as coaches because they’re insiders.

    Somehow those who are paid for training are valued more even though our colleagues would often be way better coaches.

  • Matthew Leitch August 3, 2011, 11:08 am

    SMART goals – yes I know what you mean. I mentally translate that into DUMB goals.

    One of the issues is the thing I’m a bit of an expert on now, which is the uncertainty we face at work. It’s very hard to set specific goals when the future is unpredictable and you’re still trying to find a way to be successful – and that’s even if you can begin to work out what ‘successful’ might mean in your own business.

    To explore how people see these issues I’ve devised a test/experiment and I invite you and your readers to have a go. The anonymous results will be used in my research, and you’ll probably find it quite thought provoking anyway. The test is the last on this list on this page: http://www.workinginuncertainty.co.uk/tests.shtml

  • jfbauer August 4, 2011, 5:57 am

    I enjoyed your article especially the element of measuring trust which is a key component of a successful delivery team.

    I’ve been crafting an alternative view to how SMART goals aren’t making it into the typical large corporate IT shop on my blog. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how, in the academic sense, everyone should be striving for SMART goals, but the rate of change expected of IT from the business as well as the rate of organizational change within IT is stressing solid goals.

    I encourage readers that enjoyed Pawel’s perspective to consider what I’ve written on the subject here – http://bit.ly/o575em

    Always look forward to reading what is on your mind. – John

  • Szymon Pobiega August 4, 2011, 8:50 am

    I generally think that goal setting is overrated. I’ve never formally (even talking to myself, standing in front of a mirror) set any goals, neither personal nor professional, yet I managed to achieve quite a lot in both spheres.

    The problem with goal is, by setting goal you want to make yourself a better person, but you can’t measure (directly) how good you are. All you can do is measure the indirect effect on environment. For example, if your goal is to be a good conference speaker, you can’t measure directly how good you are. What you can do is measure how many speaker engagements you get per year. This is the effect of you being a conference speaker. The problem is, this value can depend on myriad of other things that are outside of your control.

    If you want to improve (in any sense), don’t try to set SMART (or DUMB) goals. Make improving yourself the only goal and verify it frequently (daily). Have you learnt something new today? No? Why? You should have!

  • Pawel Brodzinski August 10, 2011, 1:39 am

    @jfbauer – That’s an interesting perspective which I haven’t thought about while writing about goals. You’re right. Not only we deal with intangibles, like trust, but also we have to face ever-changing business environment and we need to adjust our actions, and our goals, to the current situation.

  • Pawel Brodzinski August 10, 2011, 1:47 am

    @Szymon – I don’t think I fully agree with you on measuring how good you are. If you think about public speaking your sessions are usually rated in some way, as well as other sessions are. Considering you’re speaking to the same audience you get pretty good measure how good you are in comparison to your fellow speakers.

    If you talk about building software you can think about number and size of completed features, error rate etc. Of course it would be stupid to rate people only basing on such measures but they give you quite a lot of data to use when telling who is good and who is not.

    But then you always come down to intangibles, such as relations, creativity, etc. Despite some trainers are saying that you can measure such things I believe it’s basically bullshit. Can I say my trust is at 7 out of 10?

    That’s where I totally agree with you — the only thing we can do is constant work toward improvement. We can build trust, even though we can’t measure it in any objective way.

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