The Centre for Possible Studies

It seems that the S.M.A.R.T statement is back in fashion, at least in some circles I participate in. For those who have yet to come across this little gem, it has various definitions but all are along the same lines:

A good objective is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-oriented, and Timely

In other words, if your proposal doesn’t have a specific goal, can’t be measured, might not be achievable, can’t be tied to a specific business benefit and you don’t know how long it will take, don’t do it!

In theory, that’s quite reasonable.

In practice, when applied to systems that people interact with, it can lead to poor decisions and mediocre outcomes – ticks the boxes in terms of specific, measurable and timely but with a huge question mark about the value delivered versus what could have been.

And it gets worse. There’s also a bit of a trend to try and estimate the likely return on investment (RoI) to help prioritise projects competing for limited resources.

Simple RoI calculation

Most people would acknowledge that the above calculation is an unrealistic over-simplification. But that doesn’t seem to stop it from being used.

Systems involving human interaction contain a hugely unpredictable element: the organic material found between the chair and keyboard (or floor and tablet). Those interactions impact both the cost to implement systems and the value created (or not), in ways that can never be fully predicted in advance.

Even if humans aren’t involved, cost and value often have non-monetary elements. How do you calculate them? Scores out of 10? Good luck with that. When the government introduces new legislation that your company has to comply with, the value and RoI do not matter. It will override all current projects if a legal liability and deadline are included.

Using S.M.A.R.T to sanity check a business case can be a useful exercise. It makes you focus on knowing why the project is worth doing compared to alternative activities that would take place instead. All projects face some level of constraint be it time, money or resources. Just relax a little on the approach and don’t be too quick to dismiss proposals that don’t comfortably fit a ‘smart’ objective:

  • Is there a specific reason for the project? If not, it’s a vision. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done (or rather, attempted) but be realistic about the knowns versus unknowns involved – executive sponsorship will be highly influential
  • Does the project have measurable outcomes? If yes, great! Just don’t try and estimate the end result. Instead, have robust data about the base line – the current position that needs improving – and the underlying causes
  • How does this project compare to other options in the time and resources required: 1. Doing nothing; 2. Doing something else; 3. Doing this project differently? This is where resource constraints may force some difficult decisions and political factors man skew priorities

Here are two case studies involving systems with a high element of human interaction. One ‘smart’ and one not. Both delivered positive outcomes. Neither needed to calculate an estimated RoI in advance or could have predicted what those outcomes would lead to.

Example 1

In 2009, there were 850,000 recorded incidents in the UK documenting poor clinical handover of patient care that resulted in, directly or indirectly, to 3,500 deaths

Doctors in general medicine ranked Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust (BHRUT) 31st out of 34 London hospitals

That’s a target to improve!

BHRUT identified that many issues with the clinical handover process were occurring on Fridays and weekend mortality rates were significantly worse than during the week. They targeted filling in the communications gaps between the systems: teams working on different shifts, with different IT systems, and at different locations.

They decided to leverage existing systems rather than introduce new ones. SharePoint 2010 was already deployed, but only as a basic document management system. It became the central portal connecting the different line-of-business (LoB) systems, making it easier to submit updates and providing a single consolidated view of patient care history.

Early results achieved:

  • 98% completion rate of tasks using the new approach
  • Speed of the ‘end of shift’ handover meeting reduced from 45 minutes to 20 minutes
  • Weekend mortality rates began to fall

Just 12 months after being placed third from bottom, doctors ranked BHRUT 1st out of 34 hospitals across London

That outcome could never have been accurately estimated in advance. The project does satisfy the basics of the SMART statement. It had a specific remit, a design that was achievable, outcomes that were measurable and results-oriented, and a project delivered in a timely fashion. But above all else, it had a clear target to focus on.

Source: Microsoft case study, October 2012

Example 2

“At companies, especially technology companies, the most brilliant insights tend to come from people other than senior management. So we created a marketplace to harvest collective genius.”

The above quote is from the CEO of Rite Solutions. They decided to implement an internal prediction market where anyone can submit a proposal that is converted into stocks. Employees can buy and sell the stocks as a vote of approval or not. Changes in the prices reflect the sentiments of the organisation, regardless of role or seniority.

Every employee gets $10,000 in “opinion money” to allocate among the offerings, and employees signal their enthusiasm by investing in a stock and, better yet, volunteering to work on the project. Volunteers share in the proceeds, in the form of real money, if the stock becomes a product or delivers savings.

This example flies in the face of SMART twice. The idea doesn’t meet the criteria. It’s specific – let’s create a prediction market and see what happens. But that’s about as far as the business case goes. Really it’s a vision, seeking out new innovative ways to grow the business.  And the system is all about prioritising projects without any consideration for calculating potential RoI before starting on them.

And it worked.

One of the most popular early stocks was a proposal based on video gaming. It was not popular with senior management who weren’t interested in playing games, “I’m not a joystick jockey.” But support among employees was overwhelming. The product was launched and became responsible for 30% of annual sales!

“Would this have happened if it were just up to the guys at the top?” Mr. Marino asked. “Absolutely not. But we could not ignore the fact that so many people were rallying around the idea. This system removes the terrible burden of us always having to be right.”

What a refreshing approach to management, and not a ‘smart’ statement in sight.

Source: New York Times article, March 2006

Image: I took that photo walking through London last Summer – Possible studies? Answers on a postcard, please

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