Editor’s note: this page was updated in June 2019 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, if you’re reading this blog, odds are you are looking for specific guidance on this helpful performance management tool. 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.
What SMART Objectives Definition Should I Use?
So now you know exactly what SMART goals are, the question becomes — what SMART objectives definition should I use? 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.
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
Achievable and Agreed
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 here.
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.