A number of different variations of the SMART objectives acronym have evolved since George T. Doran allegedly coined the phrase back in 1981. In this article we will examine the key ingredients of effective SMART objectives, weight up the different options for SMART and provide our suggested SMART objectives definition for individuals to use at work.
S – Specific and Stretching
The S in SMART usually stands for specific to ensure that the objective is not vague. For example, “Make more sales” is not specific. More sales of what? How many more sales? A specific objective would be “Increase sales of advertising space this year by 15%”
In addition to specific, we also suggest that objectives should be stretching. Studies have shown that when an objective is stretching, it is more motivating for the individual and leads to higher levels of achievement. The degree of stretch needs to be reasonable though to ensure that the objective is realistically achievable (see A – Achievable below).
M – Measurable
M nearly always stands for measurable. It is important for both the individual and their manager to understand what success looks like for the objective and how both parties will know if it has been achieved. The measure could be quantitative (e.g. “Departmental overheads reduced by 10% this financial year”) or related to quality (e.g. “Project completed on time and within budget to the satisfaction of the customer”).
A – Achievable and Agreed
A is where some variance occurs between different SMART objective definitions. The most common variations are achievable, attainable, aligned and agreed. We suggest using achievable over attainable as the word sounds slightly less bureaucratic. Whilst performance objectives should certainly be aligned to the overall objectives of the organisation, we prefer to use relevant as the R to cover this point, as ‘aligned’ can sound like business jargon to employees.
The agreed point is an important one – all objectives should be agreed by both the individual and the manager. If the objective is forced upon the individual by the manager, there will be no ownership on behalf of the individual and the objective is less likely to be achieved. If you use an online performance management system to capture employee objectives, the agreed word may not be necessary as such systems tend to ensure that both parties formally agree the objectives before they are finalised.
R – Relevant
An effective performance objective should be relevant to what the organisation and / or the team needs to achieve. Otherwise, objectives could be successfully delivered, but have no impact on the overall performance of the organisation, defeating the ultimate purpose of performance management. Therefore, the overall goals of the organisation or team should be shared with individuals, in a language they can understand, before employees’ objectives are set. This will enable individuals to come up with objectives that will contribute to the achievement of these overall goals.
Note that some SMART objectives definitions use realistic for the R. However, if you have used achievable as the A, this is not necessary as the two words are essentially making the same point.
T – Time-bound
It is very important that objectives have a target date for when they should be completed – hence using the words time-bound. This not only provides a sense of urgency, but also helps when it comes to reviewing whether or not the objective has been successfully achieved. Some commentators advocate using trackable for the T instead. However, our view is that if a clear success measure has been defined (i.e the objective is measurable) and a target deadline has been set, then it should be easy to track progress towards achieving the objective anyway.
Suggested SMART Objectives definition
Here is a summary of our suggested SMART Objectives definition for use within a work context, along with questions that can help prompt individuals when writing objectives:
Specific and Stretching
Achievable and Agreed
You can download a PDF version of our SMART Objectives definition here.