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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

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)?


  • 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 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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