Goals and objectives are used regularly to define what businesses and individuals would like to achieve, in both the short and the long term. In a business context, these goals generally are required to align to organisational strategy, and thus to the cultures and beliefs of the company. However, at both a personal or professional level, it is imperative that defined goals and objectives are the correct ones for both the organisation and for the individual at that time. Therefore, the process of goal-setting must be meticulous in order to not set goals which are impractical, unachievable or even harmful. Hence why the SMART acronym is regularly used to provide a simple but effective framework by which goals can be developed in alignment with individual and organisational culture and values.
It is unclear who truly formulated the SMART model, as both Peter Drucker (1955) and George Doran (1991) have both been credited with developing the fundamental ideas behind it. SMART objectives are commonly used by managers and professional coaches to aid in developing individual objectives for employees.
As with many acronyms, the constituent letters are often taken to mean alternative things. However, the traditional interpretation of SMART stands for:
- Measurable (alternative: motivating)
- Achievable (alternatives: agreed, accurate, aligned, attainable)
- Relevant (alternative: realistic)
This generally means that the goal should be simple, focussed and well-defined; able to be outlined in one specific statement. There can be no ambiguity or room for manoeuvre with regards to the primary objectives. In a coaching scenario, or simply when defining goals for oneself, asking simple questions may help to develop a specific goal:
- What outcomes are you aiming for?
- Is it clear and straightforward, what the objective means?
- What actions will you be responsible for?
Some coaches will also suggest that what is outlined in the ‘specific’ section aligns with the ‘ 6 Ws ’:
- Who – Which individuals will be required to complete tasks (including support to yourself) in order to achieve the end goal?
- What – What exactly are you trying to accomplish?
- When – A basic timeframe; will be defined further in the ‘timely’ section
- Where – Any locations of specific events involved in the process
- Which – Any obstacles or defining factors in the process
- Why – What is the reason for this goal? What will it achieve?
This refers to the requirement that progress towards the goal must be capable of being monitored and quantified (percentage, number, frequency, etc.) during and at the end of the process, and it must be clear as to when the objective has been achieved. It must therefore follow an organised and structured system of processes which can be tracked throughout.
- How will you know when you have reached your goal?
- How will you obtain progress measurements?
Achievability is perhaps the most important of all the constituents of SMART. An objective is achievable if it can be confirmed to be attainable using evidence of another individual achieving it under similar circumstances. Achievability is not necessarily universal – it is entirely contextual and often dependent upon the individual assigned to the task, at any particular time (workload, stress, resources, external factors, etc. can cause irregular productivity).
- Do you have all the necessary skills and resources to perform the tasks?
- Does your goal feel attainable?
- What responsibilities will you have? Are you okay with them?
R is often cited as standing for ‘realistic’ – however, this has a significant amount of overlap with achievable, and thus ‘relevant’ is generally considered a more practical option. Relevant refers to how the goals developed align with individual and organisation requirements – whether they match the culture, beliefs and values of the company. Potential questions to be asked include:
- Would your individual goals benefit the organisation?
- Are these goals exactly what you require?
- Is this objective worthwhile?
Over long timescales it becomes increasingly difficult to track progress towards objectives. Generally, goals should be within immediate reach as long-term goals are often more at risk of motivational loss; however, if long-term goals are the only option then milestones should be defined (sub-goals) which can be used to examine progress and to maintain motivation towards short-term achievements. In addition, deadlines often inspire productivity (so long as deadlines are not set unnecessarily close), in accordance with Parkinson’s Law: ‘ Work expands to fill the time available for completion’ . In addition, it should also be confirmed that any goals that are potentially to be defined are possible in the time available to the individual or team.
- When will you achieve your goal?
- Where will you be six months from now?
- What work can be done today?
SMART is generally a concept used in professional coaching, problem-solving and decision-making. It can be used at an individual or team level within an organisation, by managers and employees both. However, it can also be utilised at a personal level to develop new goals and action plans that would benefit yourself or others. It outlines a very simple framework by which goals can be developed; however, there are often likely more permutations and considerations not mentioned in the SMART plan
Other letters have often been bolted onto the SMART acronym in an attempt to bring extra dimensions to the framework. These new acronyms include:
- SMART ER (evaluated, rewarded/recorded/reviewed)
- SMART TA (trackable, agreed)
- SMA RR T (includes both realistic and relevant)
- SMART- VT (verifiable, traceable)
- SMART Y (why – your motivations)
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