What are SMART goals? A guide with examples and templates

Master the art of setting SMART goals with OpenBlend's guide to SMART objectives. Learn what the acronym stands for and how to create effective, motivating performance goals and objectives (with examples and a worksheet!)

What are SMART goals? A guide with examples and templates

What is a SMART goal?

You may have recently perused our engaging blog about employee performance goals, where we delved into the subtleties of setting proper objectives, and shed light on some widely acclaimed methodologies for establishing performance targets. Standing out amongst these is the SMART objectives model.

SMART is an acronym representing Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timebound elements, though over time, alternative interpretations for some of these words have been adopted. The model was first crafted by George T. Doran in 1981, pinpointing five attributes that make an objective truly 'SMART'.

Fast forward to the present day, and the SMART goal-setting framework and methodology is utilised by businesses of all sizes, from all corners of the globe. It’s a straightforward yet highly effective model that, when implemented appropriately, aids managers in setting explicit goals that lay out precisely what is to be achieved and when.

Let’s delve into each of the five criteria:

Start with specificity

At OpenBlend, we stand by the principle that an excellent goal is a detailed one - and we’re committed to purging ambiguity from employee targets. For this reason, we're quite taken with the specificity ingrained in SMART objectives. It eliminates vague notions and the room for guesswork.

What makes specific goals so attractive? They equip the employee with a lucid understanding of what is to be achieved, and the steps required to reach the desired outcome.

Let’s differentiate between a specific objective and a vague one:

✅ Boost inbound sales leads by 15% over the next six months by organising and hosting three prospect events in May, July, and September

❌ Enhance sales leads by orchestrating more events

Examples of SMART goals: Measurability matters

SMART. goals also serve as a critical measure of performance. For this to work, they need to be quantifiable.

A measurable objective outlines the evidence that will later indicate whether or not the goal has been realised. It also enables progress tracking over time, painting a clear picture of advancement, which motivates the employee and keeps them focused on the end goal.

Due to this, SMART objectives should always be quantifiable or at the bare minimum, provide an indicator for success. They should respond to queries like ‘How much?’, ‘How many?’ and ‘How will we know when the goal has been realised?’

Here’s a sample SMART objective that’s measurable, followed by one that fails to quantify success:

✅ Complete three training sessions to enhance your knowledge and comprehension of the marketing planning process

❌ Improve your grasp and understanding of the marketing planning process

At OpenBlend, we champion measuring impact over input. The reason? Focusing on the latter accentuates management over experience - a key driver for engagement and motivation that lies at the heart of top performance.

Discover more on crafting, discussing, and tracking goals and priorities with Performance Objectives from OpenBlend.

Achievable yet aspirational

SMART objectives also need to be attainable.

Unreachable goals won't just set your employees up for failure; they’ll also lead to demotivation and instigate a negative working environment. Therefore, your goals should be ambitious but within the realm of possibility.

For example, here’s a goal that is both aspirational yet feasible:

✅ Improve the department’s customer satisfaction score from 82% to 88% over the next six months

Setting such a target provides an end goal that's motivational yet within reach, provided the right resources and training are supplied.

Achievable shouldn’t mean easily attainable, though. In fact, many organisations that use SMART have swapped ‘achievable’ for ‘aspirational’ to encourage goal-setting that stretches the employee, albeit within the parameters of what’s possible. 

So how can managers ensure the goals they’re setting are achievable? One of the easiest and most effective ways is to ‘test’ the goal against the following questions:

  • Can the employee accomplish the objective based on potential constraints?
  • Do they have the requisite resources available to them?
  • Do they have the necessary power and influence to achieve the goal?

Achievable versus unachievable

✅ Leverage your media connections to build brand awareness for company X by securing three pieces of coverage over the next two months

❌ Get the CEO of company X on the front page of the Financial Times by the end of the month

Let’s be realistic (and relevant!)

The SMART framework also states that performance goals must be realistic - a point closely tied to, but subtly different from, achievability. Here’s how we interpret the distinction at OpenBlend:

Achievable: does the individual have the ability (knowledge, skill, and access to what they need) to achieve the goal?

Realistic: considering circumstances surrounding the individual -  i.e. existing and projected day-to-day workload, personal commitments, and proposed time frame, is it realistically possible to achieve the goal or does the aspiration need to be dialled back? 

In more recent years, the ‘R’ in SMART has also taken on a second but all-important meaning: relevance. 

  • Is the goal relevant to the employee and their job role?
  • Is it going to help develop them in a way that will support their performance and career progression?
  • Is the goal aligned with company values and will it support the achievement of wider business objectives?

At OpenBlend, we’re big advocates for the evolving emphasis on ‘relevance’ because it can support more collaborative goal-setting. The question is not simply whether the manager thinks the goal is relevant, but whether the employee also considers it to be relevant within the context of their job role and development needs. That warrants a two-way discussion, which supports improved communication, better objectives, and better overall outcomes. 

Here’s an example of a goal that is both relevant and realistic: 

✅ Develop your event management skills by shadowing an event manager over the next three months in order to support your readiness for the new event manager role. 

...and one that that is neither realistic nor relevant:

❌ Host 50 events within the next month to learn more about event management (a goal set for “Sarah” who is actually much more interested in digital marketing than events). 

‘T’ is for time-bound

To help employees prioritise tasks in the right way, and to further support motivation, every SMART objective should be time-bound.  

According to the Chartered Institute of Management (CMI) assigning deadlines to employee goals can create a useful sense of urgency; help the employee to focus their attention on the things that matter most; and prompt them into positive action. 

Let’s look at a time-bound goal versus a never-ending goal: 

✅ Increase qualified marketing leads by 10% by running an additional four direct marketing campaigns by the end of Q3 2021

❌ Generate 30 more sales leads through direct mail campaigns.

Relevance in SMART Goals

Your SMART objectives must be relevant, linking back to the broader organisational goals and the employee’s role and career aspirations.

Irrelevant goals can lead to disinterest and lack of engagement among employees, negating the whole purpose of setting them in the first place. Therefore, always ensure that your goals are strategically aligned with the bigger picture.

For example,

✅ To expand our market share, enhance your social media marketing skills by attending two industry conferences this year and applying new techniques learned to our campaign strategy

This goal is related to the individual's career development and the company's objective of market expansion.

Timeliness is paramount

Last but by no means least, SMART. objectives must be time-bound.

Employees can plan their tasks and manage their time effectively with a clearly defined timeline. It also introduces a sense of urgency, helping to prevent tasks from dragging on indefinitely.

For instance, here’s an example of a time-bound SMART. goal:

✅ Conduct a comprehensive review and update of the company’s data protection policy over the next three months

Adding an extra layer: SMARTer goals

While the original SMART acronym has served organisations well, some have added a few extra letters to the mix, creating SMART.E.R goals.

The two additional letters stand for Evaluated and Reviewed. This recognises the need to continuously review and assess goals as circumstances and strategies change over time.

At OpenBlend, we provide the tools needed to write SMART.E.R goals and carry out regular check-ins, ensuring that your objectives remain aligned with your business needs and personal ambitions.

SMART.E.R goals go beyond the widely recognised SMART goal-setting framework. In addition to being Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound, SMART.E.R goals emphasise the importance of Evaluation and Review. This expanded approach ensures that employee and organisational goals remain aligned and adaptable, enabling continuous improvement and success. By following the SMART.E.R model, organisations can establish clear and effective objectives that drive performance and foster a culture of ongoing growth.

It's essential to note that drafting SMART objectives is merely the beginning. The most crucial part is implementing the objectives effectively, tracking progress, providing timely feedback, and making adjustments as required.


A summary of SMART benefits

When applied in the right way, SMART provides a simple to use and highly effective goal-setting methodology that delivers multiple people and business benefits, including:

  • Increased clarity and the elimination of vagueness
  • Improved employee engagement and motivation 
  • The ability to continually track employee progress
  • Support with task prioritisation
  • Applicability to employees working in any industry sector or company size

SMART: criticisms and considerations

But are there any drawbacks to consider? 

The short answer is yes, potentially. 

Common criticisms include a lack of flexibility, which makes SMART less suitable for long-term goal-setting. This is a risk that can be mitigated however if the goal is regularly re-visited to ensure it remains relevant to both the employee and the organisation. Likewise, by breaking long term goals down into bite-size pieces, with each time-bound ‘chunk’ forming a key part of the journey to the end goal, SMART can in fact work well for long-term goals.

There’s also a stress factor to consider when it comes to SMART. Time-bound objectives are designed to motivate and engage people, but if deadlines are not realistic, the employee can find themselves in a stress-inducing situation where they’re struggling to stay on track and becoming increasingly demotivated. For this reason, it’s essential that manager and employee agree on a deadline that both parties consider to be reasonable and achievable.

A final critique points to the way in which SMART goals are structured in line with identified milestones - an approach that some say has the potential to stifle creativity and reduce innovation. To avoid this, organisations need to build an open company culture that celebrates innovation and gives employees the autonomy to explore new ideas, even if they’re not relevant to the achievement of their goals.

How to get the best out of SMART

  1. Adopt a ‘Write, Review and Refine’ approach. Once you’ve written a SMART objective, take a step back and review it critically. Is it focused on the thing that matters most? Will it create the desired impact? Imagine someone is assessing the success of that goal and ask yourself: does it make sense and is it SMART enough? If not, keep refining.

  2. Run workshops that encourage team members and managers to become skilled in SMART by:

    1. Reviewing existing objectives and making them SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timebound)

    2. Designing performance goals and objectives from scratch and then collectively reviewing them to refine and improve

  3. Make sure the goal passes the “...in order to” test:

    This should be included as part of the objective itself...here’s an example: Develop your prioritisation skills in order to manage the three concurrent projects starting in Q3, delivering business results to agreed timelines while maintaining a “Capability to Manage Stress rating of +/=Amber”.

In closing, remember that SMART objectives are just one of the many ways to set and manage objectives. Choosing a method that best fits your organisation's culture, structure, and strategic goals is essential. Whether it's SMART, SMARTer, OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) or MBOs (Management By Objectives), the right approach will always be one that helps you realise your desired outcomes, boosts customer satisfaction, and increases market share.

To learn more about SMART goal-setting and how OpenBlend’s performance management tool can help, contact our team to book a demo.

Browse the latest resources