Not So SMART: Replicating (Instead of Growing) Natural Small Organizations

gaping void hierarchy

drawing by hugh mcleod at gaping void

Consulting ‘guru’ Peter Drucker introduced the concept of Management by Objectives in business and government affairs a half-century ago. The idea was that if you set objectives and measure ‘progress’ against them, more will get accomplished. These objectives, he said, had to be ‘SMART’: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Based. Drucker was one of the last of the old industrial model thinkers, but these ideas have caused a huge amount of damage since he introduced them. Essentially, they mistake complex environments (which most social environments — communities, enterprises and institutions — are) for merely complicated environments. They assume you can control the elements that lead to achievement of objectives. They assume you can get a handle on all the variables that affect an organization’s success. They assume you can predict outcomes. They assume that, because they have been fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time and therefore been present during a period of organizational ‘success’, they know what is needed to achieve more ‘success’. They assume their subordinates understand and do what they are told to do.

All of these assumptions are wrong. The reality is that, in business enterprises as in other complex environments, what gets done is the sum of the collective effort of those doing the work. The ‘leaders’ produce, in real terms, insignificantly more than the most junior workers, and have the power to wreck the work of many others, but not commensurate power to improve subordinates’ work. The hierarchy is all about authority, but in fact most of us (especially in non-manufacturing roles) do what we think is right, not what we’re told to do — even if we have to twist ourselves in knots to conceal our non-compliance. We do this because in this age of specialization, we really do know our jobs better than our bosses (who probably have never done those jobs).

So Management by SMART Objective leads to this ludicrous and dysfunctional dance:

  • Leaders hire ‘expert’ consultants, or huddle among themselves, or decide by fiat, what the SMART objectives should be for their organization: “increase revenues by 10% and profits by 20% next year by introducing ‘improved’ versions of 15 selected products that can be sold for an average price 25% higher than the old version, and which, through internal efficiencies, cost 15% less per unit to produce”.
  • These leaders then ‘cascade down’ these objectives and command subordinates to come up with SMART business unit plans that will, if successful, collectively achieve these top-level objectives.
  • The subordinates understand that their success depends on ratcheting up profits, and that the objectives set by the leaders are ridiculous, magical thinking. So they come up with alternative plans to increase profits by 20% through a series of difficult, but realistic, moves. These entail offshoring everything to China, layoffs, pressuring staff to work longer hours for no more money, and, if all else fails, firing people or leaving vacancies unfilled.
  • The good people in the organization all leave, because they know this short-range thinking is dysfunctional, damaging to the organizations in the longer term, unsustainable, and a recipe for a miserable workplace. Their departure creates more vacancies that aren’t filled, which in the short term reduces costs.
  • The clueless and the losers, who are left, attempt to pick up the slack. They work harder, find workarounds for the dumbest management decrees, and do their best to achieve these objectives. Those fortunate enough to be in the right market areas in the right economies get promoted into some of the vacant spots left by the good people, but without the commensurate salary increase.
  • The leaders, as a result, achieve their short-run objectives, award themselves huge bonuses, profit from increases in the value of their stock options, and repeat the whole cycle the next year.
  • At some point the utter sustainability of this “management process” becomes apparent. There is a really bad year. The economy is blamed, perhaps. Or the top leaders are fired, and rehired in other organizations suffering from really bad years. Or the company is bought out, or ‘reorganized’ so that all the old objectives and measures no longer apply, and a completely new set is established.

The byproduct is a blizzard of plans, budgets and strategies, which are substantially meaningless. Everyone does ad hoc things to protect their ass and try to make the best of impossible targets and incompetent, arrogant leaders self-deluded about their own brilliance and about their ability to control what is really happening in the organization and the marketplace.

There are, however, some things of real value happening in these organizations. None of them are ‘SMART’ so none is recognized or rewarded, and most of these things are actively discouraged. Nevertheless, because most people take pride in what they do, these valuable things happen. They include:

  • Learning: People learn by making mistakes (that they don’t admit to), and this makes them better at doing their jobs.
  • Conversations: People share, peer-to-peer, what works and doesn’t work, through mostly informal conversations, and this too makes them better at doing their jobs. These conversations are often surreptitious, since they are not considered ‘productive’ work.
  • Practice: The more people work at doing a particular task, the better they get at it. Most such practices are substantially workarounds, self-developed ways to do their particular specialized work optimally, despite instructions to the contrary from leaders and published manuals, and despite the burden of reporting SMART data up the hierarchy, which has to be creatively invented and explained so that the practices aren’t disrupted by new orders from the leaders.
  • Judgement: Through the above improved learning, conversations and practice, people develop good judgement. They make better decisions. The leaders get all the credit for these decision, but it doesn’t matter.
  • Trust Relationships: Through peer-to-peer conversations, trust relationships develop. When people trust each other, whole layers of bureaucracy are stripped away. People are left to do what they do well. Unfortunately leaders in large organizations almost never trust their subordinates, so these trust relationships are almost always horizontal, not vertical. Despite this, these relationships profoundly improve productivity.
  • Professionalism: The net result of all of the above is increased professionalism. People just become more competent.

This is why, in all my years as a manager, I always saw my role as listening and clearing away obstacles my staff were facing, identifying and getting rid of the small percentage who could not be trusted (too ambitious, too self-serving, uncollaborative, secretive or careless), and trusting the rest to do what they do best, and staying out of their way. In recent years I started to lose the heart to do this, but I still tried.

The ideal organization is therefore not SMART, but self-organized, trusting (no need to measure results, just practice your craft and the results will inevitably be good), highly conversational, and ultimately collaborative (impossible in large organizations because performance is measured individually not collectively). It’s one where the non-performers are collectively identified by their peers and self-select out by sheer peer pressure. It’s one without hierarchy. It’s agile, resilient and improvisational, because it runs on principles, not rules, and because when issues arise they’re dealt with by the self-organized group immediately, not shelved until someone brings them to the attention of the ‘leaders’. It’s designed for complexity. It’s organic, natural.

In my experience, such an organizational model can be replicated, but it doesn’t scale. This is true for social and political organizations (transition communities), economic organizations (Natural Enterprises, permaculture and renewable energy co-ops), educational and health organizations (unschooling groups and preventive/self-managed health clinics). This is why our models of a better way to live and make a living need to be small, demonstrative, and replicable — it needs to be clear how to adapt these small sustainable successes to other locations and situations.

There are some good models out there, but they are complex, and it is not at all apparent how we can replicate them. So instead, we try to grow them, until they reach dysfunctional size. If we really want to make the world a better place, we need to stop trying to grow small successes and start finding ways to replicate them, not as cookie-cutter ‘franchises’ under a command-and-control central hierarchy, but as autonomous adaptations. Drucker couldn’t fathom complexity, nor can most of the so-called business ‘thinkers’ of our day. We need some new thinking, aimed at prosperity without growth, at evolutionary cellular replication and adaptation as the means of getting more of a good thing. Small model organizations that are somehow viral, so you can just take the seed, the set of principles, of one, and transplant it and adapt it to work elsewhere. Model enterprises, communities and cooperatives.

I have no idea how to do this, but we need to find a way. Not so SMART. But really important.

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13 Responses to Not So SMART: Replicating (Instead of Growing) Natural Small Organizations

  1. Tree Bressen says:

    I agree with the thrust of what you said, seeing your critique as basically valid. Here are a few places where i see things differently.

    If SMART had not been a useful innovation in its time it would not have been picked up so widely. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not getting in the way now. This is standard in organizational evolution. Back in 1876 Col. Henry Robert’s new standardization of parliamentary procedure was a great step forward–only later did it become an albatross preventing effective collaboration.

    The usefulness of SMART is as a tool to make things concrete. I doubt it was ever intended to be applied to all organizations, all scales, or all times. In the nonhierarchical organizations i work with, there is a cultural tendency toward fuzziness; thus having a tool to make goals concrete can be extremely valuable.

    These are quibbles. It’s a good article.

  2. Steve says:

    Good article Dave – very perceptive about management by objectives. If we start from the premise that a proportion of our time and energy is needed to secure the basics of food, water and shelter, the by far largest proportion of hours needed is that which we require daily, ie food. Housing can be built to last 100 years and maintained at regular intervals. If there are 1600 working hours a year I believe 500 to 700 would be needed on food. A Japanese guy had the idea of 50% food provision, 50% X for everyone. Now, to prepare to take fossil fuels out of the equation we need to find a way for everyone to get involved in food growing. As the maximum size, for effective cooperation, of a group is 1oo-150 (you wrote on this earlier I believe) that gives us a village/community/cooperative of say 50 – 80 households that grow the bulk of their own food. Enter the Eco-unit. How you organise such a cooperative is another matter, but in terms of objectives it has to be pretty clear: everyone gets fed and no-one gets overworked…. GOOD JOB!

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  4. Janene says:


    Had two thoughts on this one, amusingly both relating to Malcolm Gladwell… first, as you described the dysfunctional results of SMART… I just read Gladwell’s article on the collapse of Bear Stearns… your description of what happens fits in well with Gladwell’s discussion of overconfidence amongst industry leaders….

    Second, your general premise of replication rather than growth recalled The Tipping Point and Gladwell’s Tale of the company in New Jersey that opperated on a strict policy of <150 people per unit of operation (factory) with the complete hierarchy represented in each, but functionally eliminated by personal relationship. Good Stuff.

    Steve…. 50-80 households will quickly outstrip the 150 person range:-) And just for comparison… traditional hunter gatherers spend a max of about 4 hours a day doing ALL of their work, so I think we can do better than 500-700 hours a year for just food. ;-)


  5. vera says:

    Tree, I would love to see more on why Robert’s Rules were helpful initially but not so later on. Can you send a link?

  6. Tree Bressen says:

    Hi Vera & folks,

    Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia explaining why Robert’s Rules were initially a positive development:

    “[Robert’s] interest in parliamentary procedure began in 1863 when he was chosen to preside over a church meeting and, although he accepted the task, felt that he did not have the necessary knowledge of proper procedure. In his later work as an active member of several organizations, he discovered that members from different areas of the country had very different views regarding what the proper parliamentary rules were, and these conflicting views hampered the organizations in their work. He eventually became convinced of the need for a new manual on the subject, one which would enable many organizations to adopt the same set of rules.”

    So adopting common procedures made collaboration easier.

    However, see this from

    “We have said it before and we will say it again: Most organizations should avoid Robert’s Rule of Order like the plague. There is nothing wrong with Robert’s Rules of Order when adopted by the right organization for the right reasons. The right organization is a parliamentary or legislative body, not your typical nonprofit charity.”

    Or this from DeAnna Martin in a comment at

    “Roberts Rules of Order . . . are outdated, squelch creativity, and do not lead to innovation – they assume ‘reasoned debate’ and a competition of carefully crafted proposals are the best answer to our complex social and economic issues. Our current government processes are already using this process to make decisions and it seems to generate partial answers that no one is really satisfied with and that don’t really address the underlying causes of the problem. There are far better collective decision-making processes out there.”

    Basically, RRO is a system for proceduralizing majority vote, and a complicated system at that. If you have a bunch of people fighting for airtime, and all of them are willing to learn that system, then it will help in determining which of them get to speak and in what order. But it rarely surfaces the deeper wisdom of the group, minority viewpoints characteristically get overridden instead of integrated, and its formality privileges those who are more skilled at learning the finer points of procedure instead of those who can best serve the group.

    Just like what Dave was saying about SMART, RRO have been applied too broadly across organizations, taken as a standard method of operation instead of being thoughtfully invoked when appropriate. If all you have is a hammer. . . . Fortunately there are all kinds of other tools available, we just need to spread the learning of them.

    See here for Tom Atlee & Rosa Zubizarreta’s comparison between RRO, consensus decision-making, and Dynamic Facilitation (aka Choice-Creating):



  7. So much bullshit Hugh. I liked it much better when you were outside. Now you actually believe (because of the success of your book) that you are a ‘Management consultant’.

    Shit. Go back home. And stop gigging this crap.

  8. vera says:

    Tree, thank you! What wonderful learning for a Sunday morning. :-) It makes a lot of sense… especially the part (was it in the Atlee paper?) about RRO making transparency possible for the first time, way back then.

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