What is a SMART goal?
You might have read our recent blog on employee performance objectives where we unpicked the art of good goal-setting and touched on some of the more popular methodologies for setting performance objectives. Perhaps the most well-known of all these frameworks is the SMART objectives model.
SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound, though substitutions for some of these words have emerged over time. The model was first developed by George T. Doran in 1981 and sets out five characteristics that make an objective ‘SMART’.
Today, the SMART methodology is used by organisations of all sizes around the world. It’s a simple yet effective model that, when applied in the right way, helps managers to set clear goals that outline exactly what needs to be accomplished, and when.
Let’s look at each of the five criteria:
SMART: start with specificity
At OpenBlend, we believe that a good goal is a detailed goal - and we’re on a mission to eradicate obscurity from employee objectives. For this reason, we really like the specificity in SMART objectives. It eliminates generality and the potential for guesswork.
The best thing about specific goals? They provide the employee with a clear understanding of what needs to be achieved, as well as the steps they need to take in order to get there.
To illustrate, let’s compare a specific goal with a non-specific one:
✅ Increase inbound sales leads by 15% over the next six months by planning and hosting three prospect events in May, July, and September
❌ Increase sales leads by hosting more events
SMART goals also serve as an essential measure of performance. That said, they need to be measurable.
A measurable objective defines the evidence that will later indicate whether the goal has been achieved or not. It also enables progress to be tracked over time, which presents a visible picture of progress, helping to motivate the employee and keep them focused on the end goal.
Because of this, SMART objectives should always be quantifiable, or at the very least, provide an indicator for success. They should answer questions such as ‘How much?’ ‘How many?’ and ‘How will we know when the goal has been achieved?’
Here’s a good example of a measurable goal, followed by one that fails to quantify success:
✅ Complete three training sessions to further your knowledge and understanding of the marketing planning process
❌ Improve your knowledge and understanding of the marketing planning process
At OpenBlend, we advocate for measurement based on impact over input. Why? Because to measure on the latter is to focus on management rather than experience - a key driver for engagement and motivation that sits at the heart of high performance.
Measuring by impact also means goals such as behavioural objectives can be made SMART. Essential to success here is clearly defining current versus the desired impact. Measurement is then determined from multiple feedback points, providing the manager with the holistic insight they need to make an informed assessment as to whether the behavioural goal has been achieved or not.
Achievable yet aspirational
SMART goals also need to be achievable.
Unattainable goals will not only set your employees up for failure, they’ll also demotivate and fuel a wider sense of disengagement. It’s a point that highlights the importance of coaching managers in how to set good performance management goals when doing performance reviews.
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.
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
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.
Run workshops that encourage team members and managers to become skilled in SMART by:
Reviewing existing objectives and making them more SMART
Designing objectives from scratch and then collectively reviewing to refine and improve
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”.