Which SMART objectives definition should you use and why is this performance management tool so important?

Editor’s note: this page was updated in March 2018 for accuracy

George T. Doran reportedly coined the phrase SMART objectives back in 1981. Since then, the acronym has evolved and experienced a number of iterations, meaning that people define SMART objectives in different ways.

While choice is almost always a good thing, you might be looking for specific guidance on this helpful performance management tool. You likely have a number of questions you want to be answered, such as:

  • What SMART objectives definition should I use?
  • Which interpretation will help to improve levels of performance and productivity?
  • How do I get employees to write their own SMART objectives?
  • How do SMART objectives differ from personal development objectives?

In this article, we will examine the key ingredients of effective SMART objectives, weigh up the different SMART definitions and provide our suggested SMART objectives definition to be used in the workplace.

 Want to learn more about creating SMART objectives for Millennials? Read our in-depth blog post on this topic here.

With regards to objectives, what does SMART stand for?

How does the SMART acronym break down for the majority of businesses? Below, we list the different (and most commonly used) versions.

S — SMART objectives should be SPECIFIC and STRETCHING

The S in SMART usually stands for specific, to ensure that the objective is not vague. Unclear objectives are a recipe for disaster and leave employees uncertain as to how to act, which means that you will not experience a true increase in productivity. As a particularly poignant example, we can look to a Gallup poll that indicates many employees don’t know what they’re doing at work. This is because managers are failing when it comes to helping employees set, understand and achieve goals.

Are your SMART objectives really specific? Take some time to honestly consider this. For example, “Make more sales” is far from a specific objective. An employee might question: more sales of what? How many more sales? By when? This uncertainty will only add to stress levels and can lead to employee burnout.

A specific objective would be: “Increase sales of advertising space this calendar year by 15%”. This gives employees a clearer idea as to what they are meant to achieve and by when.

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. Put simply, stretching goals create better results. It should be noted, however, that the degree of stretch needs to be reasonable in order to ensure that the objective is realistically achievable (see A – ‘Achievable’ below).

M — SMART objectives should be MEASURABLE

When it comes to the SMART objectives definition, 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. This is the only way both parties will know if it has been achieved. The measure could be quantitative or qualitative. A quantitative measure might be “Departmental overheads reduced by 10% this financial year”, while a good qualitative objective would be “Project completed on time and within budget to the satisfaction of the customer”.

A — SMART objectives should be ACHIEVABLE and AGREED


This letter 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. On the other hand, if the employee has the freedom to create their own objectives to a certain extent, the goal is far more likely to be achieved, and to a high standard.

If you use an online performance management software system to capture employee objectives, the agreed word may not be necessary, as such systems tend to ensure that both parties formally agree on the objectives before they are finalised.

R — SMART objectives should be 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 employee objectives are set.

In this sense, we recommend aligning SMART objectives upward, rather than cascading goals downward. This will improve company communication and transparency while enabling 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 — SMART objectives should be TIME-BOUND

It is very important that objectives have a target date for when they should be completed — hence 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.

Clear Review’s suggested SMART objectives definition

Here is a summary of our suggested SMART Objectives definition for use within your performance management system, along with questions that can help prompt individuals when writing objectives:

Specific and Stretching

  • Is the objective clear, precise and unambiguous?
  • Is the objective stretching in some way (but still realistically achievable)?

Measurable

  • Does the objective say what success will look like and how it will be measured, in terms of quantity or quality?

Achievable and Agreed

  • Is the objective realistically achievable (but not too easily), taking into account the time-frame, resources and support that are available?
  • Have both the individual and their manager agreed on the objective?

Relevant

  • Is the objective relevant to what the business and /or the team need to achieve?
  • Will it support the achievement of the overall goals of the organisation?

Time-bound

  • Has a specific date been agreed for when the objective should be completed?
  • Is the target date related to the objective rather than simply coinciding with the end of the review year?

To further help guide your SMART objective-setting process and to make the most out of this valuable performance management tool, you can download a PDF version of our SMART objectives guide here.

How do I get employees to write their own SMART objectives?

It is essential that you encourage employees to take ownership over their own objectives and to create them themselves, with the support, encouragement and supervision of their line manager. We have created a detailed how-to guide on how to get employees to write SMART objectives, but it all boils down to communication.

Once you are able to define SMART objectives, managers must then explain the importance of this performance management tool to their employees. Employees should be encouraged to challenge themselves, whilst also being realistic with regards to their own particular strengths and weaknesses. Companies can then use HR performance review software to keep employees engaged and to keep the lines of communication open at all times.

How do SMART objectives differ to personal development objectives?

SMART objectives tend to refer to goals that help to further organisational objectives. This means that companies are ultimately more productive are better able to advance and improve.

Personal development objectives, on the other hand, describe specific areas in which employees feel they need to develop in order to achieve their performance objectives or career goals. They might not be specifically tied to corporate objectives, but in achieving personal objectives, employees are able to become stronger and more confident, therefore becoming more of an asset to the team. Although there are differences, the SMART acronym can also be used to design personal objectives.

Clear Review makes setting and tracking SMART objectives easy. To see the world’s simplest performance management software in action, watch our 7-minute demo video now.

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