What is SMART? In case you haven't heard about SMART, here is a brief explanation about what it is. SMART is an acronym which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-bound. Over time, quite a few alternative words have been suggested for these letters and also a few extensions of the acronym with a few letters but for our discussion let's keep things simple here and stick to the original (as far as I know) and simple form. SMART as a tool probably emerged from the management by objectives (MBO) approach which emphasized the importance a process of defining objectives within an organization so that management and employees agree to the objectives and understand what they need to do in the organization. SMART is often seen as a handy tool to help managers and employees to agree on effective goals.
Some overlap between SMART and the solution-focused approach. At first sight, SMART does appear to have some commonalities with the solution-focused approach. Pioneers of the solution-focused approach did indeed describe the solution-focused approach as a goal directed approach (de Shazer, 1988) and recommended setting well defined goals (Walter and Peller, 1992) which should be: 1) in a positive representation, 2) in a process form, 3) in the here and now - which means the client can start the solution immediately, 4) as specific as possible, 5) within the client's control, and 6) in the client's language. Both these solution-focused pioneers and the SMART approach emphasize the need for specificity. Also there appears to be some overlap between Attainable and Realistic on the one hand and within the client's control and in the client's language on the other hand.
Yet I think there are two rather fundamental differences between the two approaches:
- Solution-focused goals are dynamic rather than static: Instead of choosing a goal at the beginning of the solution-focused process which is then left unchanged, in the solution-focused approach the 'goal' (which is usually referred to as preferred future or desired situation) is not seen as something static which can be pinned down in advance precisely. Rather, the desired situation is continuously developed, refined and changed as the process proceeds. The solution-focused approach is a test-learn approach, rather than a plan and implement approach. It can be thought of as a circular process in which iterative rounds of action and reflection lead to updating goals and possibilities. The 'end goal' will be continually developing and perhaps even changing a lot as we go along. The process is open ended and evolving from moment to moment.
- Differences in motivational approaches. Perhaps a slightly more subtle difference between how the two approaches are used in practice has to do with the differences assumptions behind the two approaches. While I'd like to acknowledge that the rather laudable aim of the management by objectives movement originally was to help managers reach agreement with employees on specific goals with employees, my perception is that SMART is usually used differently, nowadays. My perception is that it is often used as a motivational tool. A common assumption among managers (and management trainers) appears to be that if you don't make goals SMART for employees they won't try to achieve them. In addition to this, it has become common management practice to tie employee appraisals and bonuses to the achievement of SMART objectives. By using SMART is this way, it has become a tool for exercising management control and extrinsic motivation. This way of using SMART is at odds with the solution-focused approach which explicitly aims to support human autonomy and which tries to avoid exercising control and extrinsic measures as much as possible.