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The design of legal products
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Why employee performance goals — sufficiently Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Time-bound ones of course —aren’t such a good thing:

  • HR likes them: This ought to be enough of a reason. But in more detail:
  • They are a proxy: Goals tend to be a proxy or a second-order derivative of an idealised state: “getting down to 70kg” rather than “becoming healthy, funny and physically appealing” — which is most likely what you really want. And, as with all Greek tragedies one can attain the proxy without achieving the end state it is intended to achieve — you starve yourself, you may attain 70 kg but have bad breath, a waxen complexion and liver disease.
Working hypothesis: the ironies implicit in mythological fortune telling arise because the “fortunes” that flawed heroes seek are goals and not systems. So, Macbeth indeed becomes King, but it isn’t the experience he had in mind. Might Macbeth have found self-fulfilment without actually being king? A happy grandfather, respected by the royal court?
  • Goals are fixed but the world changes: Who hasn’t had a goal that has been overtaken by events? Goals commit you to an outcome which makes sense now, but should circumstances change, might seem less sensible later. But the one thing we know with certainty is that the future is not certain. Circumstances do unfold in unexpected ways. Pre-ordained goals are a feature of a complicated world, not a complex one. Who knew, when they set their goals for 2020, that the world would be gripped by a pandemic for ten months of the year? As we look out to 2021, how long will the pandemic last? Should I set my goal assuming it does, or does not?
  • They are designed so The Man can read you: Why should goals be “SMART”? It is not for your benefit, but so that the Machines of Loving Grace that watch over us can understand. Your contribution to the betterment of the organisation is ineffable, indescribable and unpredictable. Now, readers: usually, I say things like this with an air of irony: not here. It is true your contribution may not amount to anything much — many of you (probably most) are more trouble than you are worth — but the things that you do which do make a difference are, in the abstract, profoundly hard to judge, especially from the perspective of human resources. So SMART goals — especially the specific, measurable and actionable part — is not about making life easy for you but making evaluation easy for The Man. Your performance must be, in James C. Scott’s clever phrase, “legible”. Literally, machine-readable. What The Man cannot see yields you no credit: this is like a dark inversion of Terry’s maxim: what the eye don’t see the chef gets away with. All that ad hoc mentoring you did; that moment of insight, in the heat of the deal, that took ten percent out of the operating costs of the project; those times you patiently covered for an AWOL colleague to make sure the project happened; your immaculate drafting that rendered that complex issue plain for the business — none of that will bear on your appraisal, because no-one can see it. But did you complete your opinion reviews on time and to budget? Why yes, counsellor, you did! Why should your target be measurable, other than because the institution bearing down on you needs some way of assessing it in a binary way? But (again, following Scott’s reasoning) these SMART goals then create perverse incentives, for employees know they are measured and rated only what can be read, so deprioritise “illegible” good behaviour, in favour of measurable box-ticking.

Or systems?

Scott Adams has written a bit on goals. Among his observations: on the day you set a goal, you are failing it. You continue to fail at it until the point you achieve it, at which point, it is finished: now what? It gives no guide to future action. It is better, thinks Adams, to create behavioural systems which are designed to yield positive effects: rather than a goal of "be selected for the national team," go for "spend an hour each day practicing a sport I enjoy". Here you can succeed from the get go, reap benefits that are tangential to that idealised state (fitness, experiences, meeting new people etc), and you can use what you learn to dynamically adjust your pattern of behaviour to meet changing circumstances. If it should turn out you don't like cricket that much, or grow more interested in pursuing sports psychology - you can adapt your system on the fly.

But what would HR do?

See also