SMART goals are an effective tool to reach targets. The acronym stands for Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely. Find out the best and worst SMART practices and they benefit your company.
Setting SMART goals is an essential step to run a successful business. How are you going to achieve anything if you don't know what are you aiming for? Setting up goals, writing them down and sharing them with others is important because it gives you something to work towards. Plus, sharing your targets with others makes them real and holds you accountable for your actions. Many organizations manage to set some objectives and meet them, but they lack a sense of purpose. So how can you effectively set individual goals and align them with the bigger picture of the company?
Setting goals is challenging. Not many of us find it easy to set meaningful goals, and sometimes it can be even difficult to see the value of setting SMART goals. "Going with the flow” and “seeing where we get to” is very tempting. Not setting goals is comfortable and takes the pressure off of a potential failure, which is scary to most of us.
However, as already mentioned, if you don't set your mind on what you want to achieve and how you aim to get there, it's more than likely that you will NOT achieve anything at all. A lot of us are setting the wrong goals and some aren't setting goals at all.
Setting objectives helps you keep up with your progress and essentially puts your decision making on an autopilot. SMART is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely - all attributes you'll need to set effective goals. Applying this method will enable you to break down unachievable dreams into actionable objectives and progress in your career as well as personal life.
In this guide we'll take you through a history of SMART goals, what exactly they are, why setting them is important, and how can you set SMART goals for yourself. You'll also get helpful tips along the way and we'll provide you with some useful examples.
“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.” - Japanese Proverb
In 1954 Drucker introduced his theory of Management by Objectives. Management by objectives (or MBO) is a process that allows companies to define the specific goals they strive to achieve, how to achieve them and who is responsible for the activities involved. It enables companies to break big objectives into achievable tasks and allows employees to see their accomplishments throughout the process - keeping them engaged.
Similarly, in 1968 Edwin A. Locke introduced a Goal Setting Theory when he first highlighted how setting specific and measurable goals combined with appropriate feedback is much more effective for businesses than trying to achieve vague aspirations.
However, the theory also pinpointed how aspiring for something that's a stretch can keep you motivated. Setting challenging goals can keep you on your toes and help you to develop new skills, improve motivation and performance. His research also showed that the more challenging and specific a goal is the harder people work towards achieving it. However, even though it's important that the goal is challenging, it does need to be achievable in order for the technique to be effective.
Locke and Latham suggested that there are 5 essential principles of setting goals:
In 1981, SMART Goals were first introduced by George T. Doran. He was a Director of Corporate Planning for a Washington Power Water Company who published a paper titled, “There is a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives.” The methodology has proved highly effective across different industries and is implemented by many organizations - not to mention most likely by every coach and mentor in the world.
Doran recognized that companies often set objectives that are too diluted to have any impact on the business performance. Therefore, he suggests that especially for effective leaders, it is essential to set up SMART goals to successfully manage the workforce.
They are targets or objectives that an individual is trying to achieve over a certain period of time. These type of objectives are drafted by an employee and then reviewed by a line manager before being finalized. They often link to larger company objectives and team and department goals.
The definition of the acronym stands for:
As Doran suggests, “the establishment of objectives and the development of their respective action plans are the most critical steps in a company’s management process.” Goals have significant value for achieving individual success as well as company-wide growth. The technique is specifically designed to help businesses to improve their performance and hit their targets. As Jeff Boss explains, there are 5 very good reasons to set SMART goals:
Imagine you want to go travelling. If you don't know where and when you want to go, how long you are going for and who with, chances are you won't have enough motivation to save up for your travels and it won't happen. How could you? You wouldn't even know how much you need to save up in the first place! On the other hand, if you know you want to go to Japan in September for a month with your significant other and you know you would need to save up £2,000 for it, you have something to aspire for. It also gives you an idea of how much you need to saveevery month to be able to reach your goal.
In “Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive", authors Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldstein and Steve Martin explain how making an active commitment directly affects action. In one of the studies they reference, researchers found that of a group of individuals who passively agreed to participate in a volunteer project, only 17% showed up to participate. Contrast that with those who agreed to volunteer through active means (writing it down, signing a contract, etc.) and 49% appeared as promised. Setting targets provokes behaviour, as proved by science. The same applies to any objectives you set up to reach at work. Once you have a clear idea of what you need to achieve it is much easier to take action towards it.
Sharing your goals with others also holds you accountable for your behavior. As Jackie and John Coleman explain, by including other in the goal process we invite the others not only to know what we plan to accomplish but also to hold us accountable as we strive to reach these goals. As soon as you share your goals with others they become real.
Once you have a clear target to work towards, it will help you focus on what you need to actually achieve it. Stephen Duneiner highlights in his TedX Talk “How to Achieve Your Most Ambitious Goals”11 that the key to success for any big and ambitious project is to break it down to its simplest form and make marginal improvements to improve your odds of achieving them. Therefore, setting goals helps you to guide your focus and achieve them step by step.
This is possibly the most powerful aspect of setting goals. As Jocelyn Glei explains in her article for Inc: “Our brains are wired to seek completion. When you recognize a task as complete, your brain releases dopamine, which makes you feel good and makes you want to repeat the behavior again to feel more pleasure.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to a phenomenom he calls flow. According to him; "What makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.” Experiencing flow can positively influence one’s engagement in work. Think about your exercise habits. It's often difficult to start but once you are in the “flow” you start to enjoy the experience and you want to repeat the behaviour.
Blake Beattie, in his book Bullseye - The Ultimate Guide to Achieving your Goals, defined a technique called the POWERTIP achievement system that helps to maintain momentum when you are struggling as well as to eliminate habits that limit you, and maintain “magic success” for long-term success.
If you set personal objectives you not only break big dreams into actionable steps, you give yourself time and space to evaluate what you need to do in order to achieve your personal or professional aspirations. Setting SMART goals also allows employees and managers to align their individual goals to the larger vision of the company which not only improves productivity but helps to maintain company culture and keeps everyone on the same page. Through setting individual goals companies can ensure that every member of the team is involved in the process of improving and growing the business, as well as being aware of what's expected from them.
Last but not least, setting goals is an essential tool for self-leadership. Setting goals allows you to define what is really important to you, helps you to build your character and maintain personal and professional development. Creating goals makes you continuously reflect on your performance and upskill yourself. Especially if you feel like you lack guidance from your supervisor you need to develop tools to self-coach yourself. And if you're a busy manager you always need to provide your team with tools to improve and engage with their work. It will allow you to become more efficient in your role and sustain a healthy work-life balance.
The dynamic, fast-paced environment of the 21st century we live in makes it difficult to keep up with successfully implementing changes to meet the demands of the market. The changing work culture and rise of contract employees, remote working and operating international companies from multiple locations around the globe makes it complicated to keep the workforce aligned to company objectives. Therefore, setting targets for individuals, teams, departments and organizations as a whole is a must for for any leader.
It is a very straightforward process of following the template provided by the 5 SMART attributes.
Firstly, your goals need to be clear and provide you with a concise aim that will give you a sense of direction. If you simply set a goal to improve website traffic, it won't give you enough guidance to stay motivated or recognize when you've reached your objective. Instead, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
In order for your goals to be effective they need to be measurable. That way you'll be able to assess your success and know whether or not you have achieved your objectives. Therefore, you should consider:
We often have big targets and big dreams that seem impossible to accomplish. Breaking one big goal into a series of smaller ones will give you a series of joyful moments that occur once you have managed to achieve something small along the way. As mentioned before, your goals should be challenging yet achievable. Ask yourself:
Why do you want to achieve this goal? Smaller goals should be always relevant to the broader goals you want to achieve, or the ones your company and team is striving for.
It is unlikely that you will achieve your goals if you don't set a deadline. Every goal needs to have a time frame. It is imperative for your time managementment and project management in the company to make them based.To set up time specific goals you usually need to answer one of these questions:
Once you have considered all these questions you are ready to set a SMART goal for yourself and your team. So, what does a good SMART goal look like? Imagine you work as a marketer in an organization that is aiming to improve its online performance. Then you could set a goal such as:
Improve the organic traffic to the website by 10% in the next six months by increasing the number of blogposts from 2 to 4 per week, focusing on our 5 most successful topics.
Similarly, if you are a marketing manager setting goals for your direct reports you can say:
Zoe will improve the organic traffic to the website by 10% in the next six month by increasing the number of blogposts from 2 to 4 per week, focusing on our 5 most successful topics.
This goal is specific because it defines who is responsible for this activity (you/Zoe) and defines how are you going to reach this objective. It is measurable as it identifies the key metric you are focusing on (organic traffic) and by how much you aim to improve it (20%). It is achievable (you need to make an informed assumption based on your performance), relevant (it aligns to the broader marketing department goals and the objectives of the company) and it's timely (in next six months).
It can be very easy to set up vague, unfocused goals. Taking the example we just used it would mean setting a goal such as:
Improve the website traffic.
You might feel like setting vague goals is good enough because in your head you know what you want to achieve. However, if you don't break that down to specific steps and actions that need to be taken you are destined to fail to reach your aims (if you really know what those are in the first place).
A goal like this is not specific as it does not define who or how is going to fulfil this objective. It also does not provide you any metric of measuring success, and you wouldn't know when you've reached your target or what the target is! It's not relevant as you cannot assess if the goal is worthwhile as it's too vague. Lastly, there is no time scale or deadline to the goal it is not time-bound.
If you are a manager or a supervisor, you should always keep in mind the larger vision of the company when reviewing and setting goals for your direct reports. Setting SMART goals is vital for your workforce to understand what the expectations from them are and what they need to achieve to successfully progress in their career.
Setting up goals for your employees will enable you to evaluate their performance, recognize their success, and identify potential areas of improvement. Providing them with on-going feedback on their performance is necessary in order to keep them motivated and engaged. Similarly, you should always ensure to involve your employees in setting up their goals as it helps to further improve their engagement levels and dedication.
Take a look at our timeline of a typical goal cycle to understand all the steps involved in setting actionable goals.
Creating individual goals is a fundamental step to professional and personal development. Breaking up your biggest and wildest dreams will help you to define the key steps that will get you where you want to be. Through SMART goals, you will be able to reflect on your performance and assess what the next steps are to upskill and develop your character. Setting goals will also help you to stay focused and motivated to achieve what you are striving for.
Goals that are aligned to the bigger vision of the company will allow you to see how you bring value to the business and give you sense of purpose. Additionally, sharing the goals with others will make them “real” and hold you accountable for your actions.
Unfortunately, many companies fail to execute on their SMART Goals. One of the main reasons behind it is that they fail to successfully implement change in their organization. Through setting up and aligning SMART goals, business leaders can revisit the vision of the company at any time and ensure the workforce collaboratively works towards achieving it. Company goals support the development of a cohesive company culture, bring purpose to the business and thus improve the customer and employee experiences.
Michael A. Olguin identifies 4 main reasons why companies need to set SMART goals. Firstly, setting goals provides a cohesive way to measure success and progress of the organization. It also allows you to look at your business from a wider competitive and economic perspective. Setting up goals enables companies to gain deeper understanding of the effects of a business strategy.
Goals allow you to monitor the performance of your business and make strategic changes following the mid-year review. You will have the ability to modify your revenue and expense targets to reflect exactly how your business is trending. Lastly, setting company objectives provides the leadership team with an understanding of what are you trying to accomplish and then make better tactical decisions.
In this section we bring you some relevant examples to inspire you to effectively set SMART goals to drive the success of your company. There are some essential skills for successful leaders such communication skills, management skills and motivational skills. As a leader you have to focus on not only your personal development but the development of your workforce. It's advisable to focus on goals such as:
Additionally, company leaders are responsible for setting company objectives to maintain the growth and success of a business. Some effective examples include:
HR departments have various functions including recruitment of new employees, employee performance management, training and development, succession planning, compensation and benefits, amongst others. The specific requirements of individual employees are rising and companies therefore need to focus on providing an outstanding experience to the employees in order to retain the best talent. In order to do so, it is essential to have clear goals set, such as:
Sales and business development are essential for growth of any organization. Therefore it's vital to set specific goals to reach in order to maintain the performance of a business:
The main objective of marketing is to grow brand awareness, generate and nurture leads and support the sales operations. In order to do so marketers can set up goals such as:
Find below an example from a different industry to help you understand how to set your SMART goals from the perspective of teachers. 4 essential objectives to set in order to become more productive an efficient.
It's Sunday evening, all you want to do is sit back and watch Netflix but instead you are scrambling to get your lesson plan for following week done because you kept pushing it back this week. Every teacher is familiar with this scenario and knows its pitfalls.
Avoid this scenario by aiming to finish your lesson plans by Thursday the week before, so you have Friday to read over them, make amendments and annotations so you can come in on Monday with a clear head.
You've just finished marking 60 essays, you put the kettle on and you hear an altercation in the playground that you rush to resolve. You're back in the staff room, but before you can take a sip of your tea, you get a concerned phone call from a parent wanting to know why you gave their boy a D on their latest assessment... and the hours pass and the mugs of tea go cold.
Teachers don't get a lot of 'me' time. Whether it be your boss, the students or the parents, it can often feel like you are on beck and call for all three. But, if you don't make time for yourself, you will likely burn out. And then you can't help anybody.
Teacher's often find it hard to say no, so the best way to ensure you are making time for yourself is by benchmarking a specific time period on your calendar and share it with the rest of your team so that people are automatically notified before hand that you will be off grid for the specified amount of time.
Parents often complain about how they seldom hear from the school unless it's a complaint. It makes sense to look to the parents if a problem cannot be resolved at school however, if that's the only reason you ever get in touch it may be recieved the wrong way.
Invest some time into sharing positive insights you have made regarding their child and this will build a rapport - so that when you do come with bad news, they are more open to receiving it.
To teach, you must learn. Always make time for your own personal development by attending educational events which will enrich you with current knowledge and trends which you can apply or share in the classroom.
If you want to go an extra mile with your goal setting apply the SMARTER methodology that enables you to set objectives that are relevant and realistic to achieve, but also to evaluate and adjust them as you progress.
In the ever-changing environment of today’s society, it is essential to remain flexible and adjust to challenges that come up. Check our article on SMARTER goal setting to find out more.
Specific – Which target area is most at risk and focus on this area. Maybe try and reduce the amount of employee turnover in employees who have been at the company for less than 2 years.
Measurable – Generate a more specific metric. For example, reduce turnover by 15%.
Achievable – It’s time for a step back, consider if this target is realistic. If so, great! If not, have another think.
Relevant – Is the current rate of employee turnover damaging, do you want small or large improvements? Does your company have a specific problem with onboarding for example?
Timely – Set yourself a deadline. Give yourself 6 months.
Evaluation – Evaluate your process along the way, look at the process every two weeks to see what is working well and what is not.
Re-adjust – Some problems may occur along the way. For example, changing the onboarding process may be met with resistance, can you change your approach to target another area, perhaps the recruitment phase?
'Reduce employee turnover by 15% in the next 6 months by addressing issues in the onboarding process. Constant evaluation is required with re-adjustment options available.'
Specific – Increase organic traffic specifically, thereby removing all other traffic categories and focusing on one.
Measurable – 25% increase of unique site visits. Stimulated by producing 5 extra blogs per week.
Achievable – Again is this target a realistic goal?
Relevant – Organic traffic has been identified as a key driver of new sales, so this is a relevant goal.
Timely – Try a 3-month process here.
Evaluation – Is the objective working? Is organic traffic increasing as we go through the process? Make sure to keep on checking and evaluating your progress. If the objective is successful, extend the objectives for another 3 months and re-evaluate your target.
Re-adjust – Is the number of blogs too few or too many, re-adjust to match the abilities of the marketing team.
'Increase website traffic by 25% by creating 5 extra blog posts a week within the next three months. If the objective is a success, consider extending the process for another 3 months with new targets.'
Specific – Focus on one area of sales that needs to improve. Try improving out-bound sales leads.
Measurable – Improve out-bound sales leads by 30% by devising a new channel for out-bound sales i.e. LinkedIn sales etc.
Achievable - Do your sales team have the capabilities to achieve this new target? Is there another staff with relevant experience to achieve this new project?
Relevant – A lack of presence in the outbound sales market means that you could be missing out on potential customers.
Timely – Set a realistic time frame for yourself to complete this target. 4 months is a reasonable target.
Evaluate – Evaluate the success of the goal on a bi-weekly or monthly basis, to check whether any re-adjustment needs to take place.
Re-adjust - Adjust the process to make it more feasible. If it’s not, think about changes that can be made. Instead of improvements by 30%, adjust to a 5% increase per member of sales staff.
‘Increase outbound sales leads by 30% by creating a new outbound sales funnel in the next four months. Alternative options include a 5% increase per member of sales staff if the process is not working within the first two months.’
Specific – Employee engagement is a big topic, so you should focus on more specific’s employee engagement issues. Extract one topic/question from your employee engagement survey to focus on. For example, try and improve the score on ‘You feel the work you do is valued and appreciated’.
Measurable – Responses on the employee engagement survey are based on a Likert scale (usually a 5- or 7-point scale). The desired target would be responses in the top two numbers (dependent on scale). Try and boost responses in this target area to 75%.
Achievable – A challenging goal, but one which has wide reaching benefits. The target needs to be realistic within the scope of your organization and resources.
Relevant – Improving employee engagement has a positive impact on productivity in a number of different facets.
Timely – Base this goal in line with your employee engagement survey. If this is done annually, set the goal for 12 months. If done twice a year, set a re-occurring goal for every 6 months. ****
Evaluate – Continuously evaluate your processes with pulse surveys and ENPs.
Re-adjust – If the goal is unachievable, think about implementing a social recognition programme instead.
‘Improve the employees feeling of value with their work, by achieving a 75% target in the employee engagement survey topic within the next 12 months. Assess and evaluate progress with pulse surveys and ENPs.'
Specific – Interpersonal relationships are unbelievably important, and you cannot boil it down this simply. Choose a certain part of interpersonal relationships to focus on. Develop better active listening skills.’
Measurable – A slightly more difficult goal to measure. Feedback, and especially 360° feedback, is a good way to measure your interpersonal relationships with colleagues, superiors and subordinates. Try and achieve a 30% increase in responses compared to your last feedback review on this topic area.
Achievable – Is this achievable? The importance of developing strong interpersonal relationships should not be underestimated, and this goal should not be thought of as unachievable.
Relevant – Interpersonal skills are important. They help people build and foster strong working relationships.
Timely - Base this goal in line with your feedback processes. If this is done annually, set the goal for 12 months. If done twice a year, set a re-occurring goal for every 6 months. If done continuously, then continuous evaluation and adjustment is imperative.
Evaluation – Try and garner feedback along this goal process to evaluate how you are getting on.
Re-adjustment – If you feel as though the feedback you are receiving isn’t timely or responsive enough, think about trying more informal feedback process to assess your progress.
'Develop better active listening skills indicated by a 30% increase in feedback results compared to your previous review, within the next 6 months. Adopt more informal feedback processes if you feel the current feedback process does not provide you with quick enough responses.'
In order to make the goal setting process truly effective companies should bear in mind that this technique can be limited when it comes to long-term organizational objectives. Therefore, it is important to regularly review the goals and allow for flexibility in their adjustments. We suggest you review and adjust one's goals on a monthly basis to review the progress and implement adjustments if neccessary.
To do so, you should set a clear action plan of steps to achieve your goals. The action plan should include milestones and potential pitfalls might have to be overcome, and a schedule for achieving goals.
This SMART goals template in Word will help you to start using the SMART methodology.