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Which SMART Objectives definition should I use?

Wood letter of SMART objectives definition with hand writing definition for smart goal setting concept

Editor’s note: this page was updat­ed in Jan­u­ary 2020 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 dif­fer­ent man­agers define SMART objec­tives in dif­fer­ent ways.

While choice is almost always a good thing, in addi­tion to our per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware, we have oth­er guides on per­for­mance man­age­ment tools and process­es avail­able. You like­ly have a num­ber of ques­tions you want answer­ing — which is why we want­ed to cre­ate this com­pre­hen­sive resource. Below, we will explore the following:

  • What Are SMART Objectives?
  • What SMART Objec­tives Def­i­n­i­tion Should I Use?
  • What is Clear Review’s Sug­gest­ed SMART Objec­tives Definition?
  • How Do I Get Employ­ees to Write Their Own SMART Objectives?
  • How Do SMART Objec­tives Dif­fer to Per­son­al Devel­op­ment Objectives?

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

What Are SMART Objectives?

Put very sim­ply, SMART objec­tives (or SMART goals) are a form of objec­tive set­ting which allows man­agers and employ­ees to cre­ate, track and accom­plish, short-and-long-term goals.

All too often, goal set­ting gets side­lined in busi­ness. In fact, accord­ing to a Gallup poll, rough­ly half of all employ­ees don’t know what is expect­ed of them at work. When this is the case, employ­ees get frus­trat­ed, con­fused and dis­en­gaged. On top of this, they are fat­ed to let man­age­ment down, as they don’t have a clear pic­ture of what goals to accom­plish — or how to go about achiev­ing them. 

This is where the SMART acronym comes into play. This sys­tem gives organ­i­sa­tions a smarter way of set­ting objec­tives. Through the use of SMART objec­tives, employ­ee and line man­ag­er can put togeth­er an action plan to improve per­for­mance, increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and con­tribute to organ­i­sa­tion­al goals.

SMART Objec­tives Exam­ples: How To Define SMART

So now you know exact­ly what SMART goals are, the ques­tion becomes — what SMART objec­tives def­i­n­i­tion should I use? How do I define objec­tives? 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 the objec­tive is not vague. Unclear objec­tives are a recipe for dis­as­ter and leave employ­ees uncer­tain how to act, which means you will not expe­ri­ence a true increase in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Using the Gallup ref­er­ence above, we know many 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,​“increase 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 (some­thing that has very recent­ly been recog­nised by the World Health Organ­i­sa­tion (WHO) as an organ­i­sa­tion­al phe­nom­e­non of concern).

A spe­cif­ic objec­tive would be: 

Increase sales of adver­tis­ing space this cal­en­dar year by 15%”. 

This gives employ­ees a clear­er idea about what to achieve and by when.

In addi­tion to spe­cif­ic, we also sug­gest 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, the degree of stretch needs to be rea­son­able to ensure 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 an employ­ee and their man­ag­er to under­stand what suc­cess looks like for the objec­tive. This is the only way both par­ties will know if the objec­tive has been achieved. This is why objec­tives need to be track­able, mea­sur­able goals.

The mea­sure of a SMART objec­tive could be quan­ti­ta­tive or qual­i­ta­tive. A quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure might be​“Reduce depart­men­tal over­heads 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. While per­for­mance objec­tives should cer­tain­ly be aligned upward 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 in ques­tion. 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. Of course, real­is­tic goals are impor­tant. 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, or a time frame 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 if a clear suc­cess mea­sure is defined (i.e. the objec­tive is mea­sur­able) and a tar­get dead­line set, then it should be easy to track progress towards achiev­ing the objec­tive anyway.

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What Is 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. Each of the SMART cri­te­ria is as impor­tant as the oth­er, so be care­ful not to over­look one ele­ment or favour one aspect over another:

Specif­ic and Stretch­ing

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


  • 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?


  • 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?


  • 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 our free PDF tip sheet for set­ting SMART objec­tives. You can also check out our oth­er avail­able resources.

How Do I Get Employ­ees to Write Their Own SMART Objectives?

It is essen­tial you encour­age employ­ees to take own­er­ship of their objec­tives and 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 can define SMART objec­tives, man­agers must explain the impor­tance of this per­for­mance man­age­ment tool to their employ­ees. Employ­ees should be encour­aged to chal­lenge them­selves, while also being real­is­tic about their par­tic­u­lar strengths and weak­ness­es. Com­pa­nies can then use HR per­for­mance man­age­ment review soft­ware to keep employ­ees engaged — and 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 com­pa­nies are ulti­mate­ly more pro­duc­tive — and bet­ter able to advance and improve.

Per­son­al devel­op­ment objec­tives, on the oth­er hand, describe spe­cif­ic areas where employ­ees feel they need to devel­op to achieve their per­for­mance objec­tives or career goals. They might not be specif­i­cal­ly tied to cor­po­rate objec­tives, but by achiev­ing per­son­al objec­tives, employ­ees can become stronger and more con­fi­dent — and there­fore, 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 (and most effec­tive) per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware in action, watch our 7‑minute per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware demo video now.

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