How SMART goals work (a complete guide)

Are you looking to incorporate goals with your team at work? If so, it can be helpful to use a framework to make the process a bit more measurable and less ambiguous.

As you probably already know, goal-setting is a great way to document and hold yourself accountable for accomplishing specific outcomes within a specific period of time. It’s a common occurrence to do it in an ad-hoc way that’s not properly documented, this is especially true for new managers. That’s why goal-setting frameworks exist.

There’s a variety of frameworks you can use; OKRs, BSQMBOs, the Buffett goal setting framework, and SMART goals. This guide we’ll cover SMART goals – they’ve been around for a while and can be a simple way to add structure to your workplace goals.

In this post we’ll talk a bit about the history of SMART goals and work into more specifics about how you can incorporate this framework with your team.

THE HISTORY OF SMART GOALS

S.M.A.R.T goals were first introduced by George Doran in this article written in 1981. Doran was a management consultant at the time and previously worked as the Director of Planning at Washington Water Power Company.

He specifically describes SMART goals and the problem they solve in the following quote:

“How do you write meaningful objectives?” – that is, frame a statement of results to be achieved. Managers are confused by all the verbiage from seminars, books, magazines, consultants, and so on. Let me suggest, therefore, that when it comes to writing effective objectives, corporate officers, managers, and supervisors just have to think of the acronym SMART.

WHAT DO SMART GOALS STAND FOR?

Ok, now that we’ve got the history out of the way, let’s talk about each part of a SMART goal.

In Doran’s article, he specifically states that SMART goals are defined as:

  • (S) Specific: target a specific area for improvement
  • (M) Measurable: quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  • (A) Assignable: specify who will do it
  • (R) Realistic: state what results can be realistically achieved, given available resources.
  • (T) Time-related: specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

What I found interesting as I read the article is that every section of a SMART goal isn’t required. This framework is not gospel but instead aims to serve as a foundation for effective goal-setting. While you want to do your best to make each goal “smart”, it’s not a requirement.

I find that this is an effective approach, as I’ve seen managers take SMART goals and go overboard. Flexibility is key.

Now that we’ve defined SMART goals, let’s jump into each section and break them down a bit more.

SMART goals

SPECIFIC

The first section is to add specificity to your goal. You should be focused on what you are trying to accomplish. It’s very important to focus on the what in this section:

For example, if you are an elementary school-teacher, you may set a SMART goal to have the majority of your students move onto the next grade. We recommend being specific and including qualitative data.

MEASURABLE

In this next step you should be focused on providing a quantitative outcome. If you don’t know what quantitative data is, it’s data that can be expressed numerically (or it can be counted).

Assigning a specific number to your goal is important to answer the question “how“. We find it can be tough to estimate a specific number months in advance, but the point of a number is to push yourself to keep improving. When you are specific when assigning the goal, it helps you visualize the outcome you’re hoping to achieve.

Let’s use the school-teacher example again. A measurable outcome would be to quantify that you want 98% of your students to pass and move onto the next grade.

ASSIGNABLE

You may see articles that have changed this next section from assignable to “achievable”, which we think is dumb. You wouldn’t create a goal in the first place if you didn’t think it was achievable! That’s why we recommend defining who will be completing the work.

This section may not be as applicable when setting goals by yourself, but it’s extremely important in a team setting.

Who will be completing the work?

Each goal must be assigned to a specific individual. In the example of the school-teacher, they may be assigned to teach math, while another teacher may be responsible for teaching English. Each teacher is assigned a key piece of the goal.

REALISTIC

In this next section, you will need to define a realistic outcome, given a variety of factors. This is a great way to document the dependencies that are needed to accomplish the goal, and potential roadblocks that may pop-up along the way.

Achieving any goal will require persistence, so thinking about them in the early days helps you set realistic goals.

Back to the teacher example – let’s say you want 98% of your students to move onto the next grade, but for the past five years the number has been 90%. Is the goal realistic?

It’s up to you to decide if the goal is realistic, however, make sure to stretch. You should always be continuously improving. Once again, the point of this section is to think practically about how you will achieve your goals.

TIME-BASED

This final section is focused on solving the “when” question. When will the desired outcome be accomplished? This accomplishes two important things:

  • Forces you to stay on track
  • Helps coworkers understand expectations around when things will be done (visibility)

You must set an end date for your desired outcome. In the example of the teacher, the end date of the goal would be the end of the school year. If you’re a manager, we recommend asking about specific timelines in a weekly check-in.

IN CONCLUSION

A framework like SMART goals can be extremely useful, but don’t go overboard with them. These specific pieces are important but are not an absolute requirement.