When SMART Objectives Lead to Stupid Training

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I saw a tweet recently from a teacher who said he didn’t want to improve students’ test scores on various subjects; he wanted to encourage students to be mathematicians, authors, scientists, and athletes (and so on).

It got me thinking about how in learning and development, we can get so focused on what we can measure right now, for a quick win, that sometimes we lose sight of the long-term strategic goals we want to achieve.

At least, I know I’ve been guilty of it. So in this week’s post, I’m writing about three times when SMART objectives can lead to stupid training.

When SMART Objectives Are the Only Thing We Focus On

We all know that good objectives are SMART, right? They’re specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. Writing SMART objectives means identifying specific outcomes the learner can realistically achieve by the time they complete the lesson and we can measure through some sort of assessment.

So, instead of writing something like, “be inspired to become a mathematician” (which isn’t at all measurable and may not be realistic or achievable either), we write, “By the end of this lesson, students will be able to state the Pythagorean theorem.”

But why? What benefit does this knowledge have? What will it help them achieve?

How many times have you taken an eLearning course that list the learning objectives on the first screen, with no explanation of What’s In It For Me? (WIIFM) and nothing at all to motivate you? Fellow L&D professionals, I beg you, stop creating screens like that. (Here are some things to do instead.)

When we focus only on SMART objectives, we lose the inspiration behind them. Learners don’t know why they need to know what we’re teaching and what they might be able to achieve once they know it.

When We Have a Cow If the Learning Goal's Not Measurable

I’ve always thought Chick-fil-A must have a really effective new hire training program because their employees are consistently friendly, with a common language that positively oozes customer service. (My pleasure!)

meme with the Chick-Fil-A logo, a cartoon cow, and the text, "Whoever created the Chick-Fil-A drive-through process should be in charge of the government, hospitals, and the DMV.

Let’s imagine we’re creating training for new Chick-fil-A employees on their drive-through process. Our objectives might look something like this:

  • List the steps in our drive-through process.
  • Explain how our drive-through process benefits our customers.
  • Identify safety measures to take while outside in the drive-through.

If we created training solely focused on these objectives, would it lead to the stellar customer service we’ve come to expect from Chick-Fil-A? Probably not. These might be fine as enabling objectives, but what we’re missing is the goal, and specifically the why behind the goal.

I have no idea what Chick-Fil-A’s training actually looks like (probably something like this), but here’s my stab at a goal statement for the learner: “Have a positive influence on each customer’s day by following a drive-through process that values friendliness as much as efficiency.”

Now, I know that goal statement’s not easily measurable. But you know what? I’m not even stressing about it, sorry.

We could write a measurable business goal that’s focused on increasing sales and customer satisfaction. But if the goal we present to the learner is something like, “Increase the speed of drive-through orders by 10%,” what kind of customer service would we get? [Cough, cough, McDonald’s.]

I think the goal we communicate to learners should focus on the impact their actions will have—not on the company’s bottom line, but on people’s lives, including their own whenever possible.

And just like the teacher who wants to encourage kids to become scientists, artists, and athletes, we should be communicating what we really want the learner to achieve in the long run. We can’t do that if we only list the SMART objectives on the first slide.

When the Way We Write Terminal Objectives Kills Performance Improvement

True confession time: I have been guilty of writing enabling objectives FIRST and then going back and writing a terminal objective that encompasses all of the enabling objectives. And I bet I’m not the only one. I did that because when I’d ask SMEs, “What do learners need to DO?” I’d invariably get answers that start with, “They need to know ____.” So, I’d write those statements down and reword them as needed to be “SMART.”

If the purpose of learning needs analysis were to get through the objective-writing process as quickly as possible, my old process would get high marks. But what I was doing was the equivalent of giving turn-by-turn directions to someone without first asking where they want to go.

Now, when SMEs answer the “DO” question with a “KNOW” answer, I jot down their statement as a potential topic to explore later, but I don’t spend time trying to write it as a learning objective just yet. Instead, I redirect to get them focused on the goal.

Once I can get them to tell me what learners need to DO differently, we still don’t jump ahead to what they need to KNOW just yet. Those of you who’ve read Cathy Moore’s Map It know where I’m going next. We need to ask WHY the learners aren’t already doing what we need them to do. That’s the magic question that helps us determine whether training will solve the problem (or even part of it).


Last year, my company conducted an organizational learning needs analysis that included a survey, interviews, and focus groups—resulting in input from more than 1,300 people. The executives told us their staff needed more training, particularly on using standard processes. But what we heard over and over, from those who worked under those executives, was that they were understaffed and overtasked—and lack of time was the main reason processes weren’t followed. Furthermore, the processes they were supposed to use were inefficient and ever-changing, without adequate communication of those changes.

Imagine that we had only talked to the executives and then created process training based on their recommendations. It wouldn’t have solved a single problem this organization was having. Yet that’s what we in L&D end up doing time and again. We skip the “WHY” question and go straight to writing SMART objectives for a course the organization might not even need.


To sum up:

  • Learners need more than just a list of objectives. They need to understand the WIIFM and what the training/education will help them achieve in the long run.
  • We shouldn’t let the need to write SMART objectives keep us from dreaming big.
  • When we spend time in the beginning to find out what learners need to DO, and WHY they’re not already doing it, we can uncover the larger goals and priorities that often get lost if we skip ahead to enabling objectives.


If you purchase Cathy Moore’s book from the above link, I will earn a small amount as an Amazon Affiliate. This helps to support this blog and does not affect the price you pay.

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