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Opinion People and Leadership Short Read

Don’t be SMART – objective setting in Defence

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Defence has reinvigorated its existing approach to annual appraisals, underlining objective setting as the key mechanism to frame and evaluate individual performance.  But in relying upon time bound, measurable and achievable outputs the army is in danger of limiting innovation and exacerbating unethical behaviours.  The use of SMART objectives risks encouraging short termism, egotistical actions and a lack of ambition.  This article recommends a different approach and uses the British Army as a case study to show why.

SMART is smart for a reason

At first glance, what is known as objective based reporting makes perfect sense.  To support this, Defence has long since adopted SMART objectives – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed.  Joint Service Publication (JSP) 757 outlines the intent, stating: “Ideally, objectives will include specific tasks and additional duties that meet SMART objective criteria.”1  That guidance has now been reframed as direction.  It seeks to reinforce the application of SMART objectives to drive down a culture of over grading, reduce subjectivity in performance assessment and improve career management.  In principle, this is a worthy undertaking.

Objective setting is nothing new: “Nearly every modern organisation has some form of goal setting in operation.”2  It also has some science behind it.  Research suggests that goal setting positively affects individual performance – they energize, focus efforts and impact persistence.3  In an Army context, objective setting could see a junior soldier agree with their reporting officer an objective that is specific, such as completion of all mandatory annual training tests, within a set time period (before a warned-off deployment), and include a performance element that can be measured, such as knocking down enough targets on the rifle range to be graded a marksman.  An objective for a service person with more responsibility could be to ensure that a Platoon/Company/Battalion passes an upcoming equipment inspection with the highest possible grading.  These objectives channel individual effort in areas that are important to the organisation, and in which success or failure are easy to measure.  So far, so good, for SMART objectives.

Good things come to those who wait

In his book Turn the Ship Around, US Navy captain David Marquet noted that the performance of his team rose markedly when they were able to agree on specific and measurable outcomes – such as reducing technical errors in operating a nuclear-powered submarine, as assessed during safety inspections.  However, Marquet also recognised that some of the most significant of his achievements could not be immediately measured.  It was not until some years later that he could reflect that his leadership development programme contributed to a hugely disproportionate number of his team being selected for key leadership positions in the US Navy, from captain to chief of the boat; or, that for more than a decade after his command his submarine would receive an unprecedented number of operational awards.  For Marquet, alongside immediate goals his objectives focused on his legacy, even though the appraisal system offered no incentive for excellence beyond his tour.  This highlights a key limitation of the SMART model: it is based on short termism.

Aiming to measure all outputs within an artificial reporting period is flawed; on operations, that time window could be just six months.  It may also lead to unethical behaviours.  The British Army’s constant rotation of commanders and their units in Afghanistan may have contributed to a lack of accountability.  Many of these commanders reported that their tour’s objectives had been met, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.  Measurement metrics were adapted, including changing from recording instances of violence in Helmand Province to the selling of tomatoes.  Much heralded successes in short-term military objectives, such as the turbine delivery to the Kajaki Dam, were only truly identified as failures some time later.  In the UK, defence acquisition also suffers from a posting cycle that encourages officers to identify success in meeting objectives without the long-lasting accountability to prove it.  Use of SMART, short-term objectives, will make this problem worse not better; it is directly related to the culture of over grading.  The army should welcome objectives that offer the potential for small wins, but enduring objectives will be the most important.  These may need to be team, rather than individual goals, recognising both the collective nature of army output and the reality of dispersed teams coordinated through mission command.

What’s measured is what gets done

We are all familiar with the phrase: You can’t improve what you don’t measure.  This is a founding principle in the development of a SMART model.  The argument is that nothing tells as true a story for a business as the bottom line.  What is also true, is that what is measured is what gets done.  From experience, as a commander this can work to your advantage.  If soldiers know that the top performers in a military skills competition or JNCO cadre will receive some form of recognition, you can expect this knowledge to drive competitive behaviours and improve overall standards.  As has been argued, human behaviour can be predicted by the metrics we are measured against.  However, this can have unintended consequences.

SMART behaviour: the law of unintended consequences

Goal setting may motivate staff to use unethical methods to misrepresent performance.  Commercial examples include making unnecessary repairs during car servicing to meet quotas and even sending bricks instead of disk drives to customers as a company measured success on delivery targets.4 In the British Army, if a commander has an objective to reduce cases of bullying and harassment (which is laudable), will there be a temptation to resolve complaints before they are formally recorded?  Similarly, if the measurable objective was to raise the number of promotions in a unit, would that not impact the impartiality of reporting?  The ethical foundation underpins leadership; the army must be careful that management processes and reliance upon metrics do not undermine traditional strengths such as the moral component.  In some cases, the best goal may be no goal setting at all.

Think big or go home

The British Army is also placing great emphasis on creativity and innovation as it transforms from mechanisation to digitisation.  The concept, part of Future Soldier, is that winning conflict in the digital age demands a more skilled workforce, comfortable and empowered to perform their very best.  Yet formulaic objective setting does not easily capture innovation and knowledge creation.  Google has the famous objective of organising the world’s information.  This is the very opposite of measurable or timed; it may not even be realistic or achievable.  Innovation is underpinned by experimentation, the essence of which is that before the experiment you are unsure of the outcome.  A leading digital organisation (Amazon, Microsoft, Google) will conduct thousands of annual experiments, most of which will fail, but from all of which they will learn in their adaptation.  Army leadership doctrine aspires to create an “optimum learning environment”, one where experimentation is “safe to fail”.  However, there is no allowance made in SMART objectives for failure.

Alongside innovation stands ambition.  If we return to the example of a junior soldier giving accomplishment of annual training tests as an objective, in theory the soldier has complied with direction.  The objectives are SMART, if uninspiring; these (with the exception of marksman) are the minimum standard that should be expected of a soldier.  While conversations with a reporting officer might adjust these objectives, it underlines that being assessed against measurable and achievable objectives encourages reducing the level of ambition.  Effectively, this is where leadership and management collide.  As Kotter has explained, management tools bring order to complexity, whereas leadership helps us cope with volatility and change.  One is about monitoring, another motivating.  The British Army needs both, but particularly soldiers motivated to stretch the boundaries in a future operating environment characterised by the demand for agility.  A culture is required that stimulates, through performance evaluation, adoption of ambitious objectives.

Some objectives need to be tough, as well as others that might be achievable.  According to theory, a tougher goal translates as greater individual commitment.5  These cater for not only extrinsic (reward) motivation, but intrinsic and achievement motivation – that is, satisfaction derived from some conscious or sub-conscious standard of excellence.6  If we reflect on our most significant goals achieved in a career, these are unlikely to have been SMART.  They were not easy, often had a context of friction or chain of command resistance, took a long time to complete and included moments of self-doubt in the journey.  A “safe to fail” environment, and inter-linked managerial model, must offer time and space for their achievement.

 A way ahead: FIGHT not SMART

This article has highlighted drawbacks for the British Army in embracing the SMART model in objective based reporting.  While military appraisals are not all bad, basing them on SMART objectives can lead to a number of negative consequences.  Rather than SMART, the acronym FIGHT is offered as an alternative:

  1. Flexible.  Objectives that include small wins as well as enduring goals.  Learning goals that matter to the individual to be blended with performance goals for the army.
  2. Inspired by legacy.  Mid-to-long term objectives are what really matter, especially as responsibility of the soldier or officer increases.  It is recognised that this will challenge the chain of command’s ability to evaluate performance, but this does not minimise their importance.
  3. Good of the team.  Team goals that incorporate 180/360 reviews to recognise talent and reduce subjectivity will drive positive behaviour and better align with the army’s adoption of Adair’s action-centred leadership Task-Team-Individual model.
  4. Honest.  Objectives built upon an ethical foundation respecting army values.
  5. Tough.  Objectives that admit the possibility of failure and are valued for willingness to take risk and experiment.

The British Army has identified a problem with appraisal reporting and sought to fix it by reinforcing the use of a managerial process in SMART objective setting.  However, this process may cause more harm than good.  In order to get the best from its people it should rethink: FIGHT, not SMART is the recommended approach in objective based reporting.


Gary Allen

Gary Allen is a British Army Officer in the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.  He has served in operations in the Middle East and Europe and has 20 years of experience in single and joint environments as well as with NATO and the UN.

The views expressed in his writing are his and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.


  1. Joint Service Publication 757 Part 1 (V3. 1 Sep 21), paragraph 4 (c).
  2. F.C. Lunenberg, ‘Goal Setting Theory of Motivation’, in International Journal of Management, 15 (1), 2011, p.1.
  3. E.A. Locke & G.P. Latham, ‘Building a proactively useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35 year odyssey’, in American Psychologist, 57 (9), 2002, p.706-707.
  4. L.D. Ordóñez, M.E. Schweitzer, A.D. Galinksky, M.H. Bazerman, ‘Goals gone wild: the systematic side effects of over-prescribing goal setting’, Harvard Business School Working Paper, 09-083, 2009, pp.1-26. Available at: https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/09-083.pdf (Accessed 21 February 2022).
  5. E.A. Locke & G.P. Latham, ‘Building a proactively useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35 year odyssey’, in American Psychologist, 57 (9), 2002, p.707.
  6. E.A. Locke & K. Schattke, ‘Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: time for expansion and clarification’, in Motivation Science, 5 (4), 2019, p.277-290.

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