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SMART objectives: A complete guide

11/02/2024 minute read Hamzah Hafesji

For those within the HR realm, it might be easy to assume everyone is adept at setting SMART objec­tives, because it’s so embedded within their line of work. But many people won’t be familiar with this practice and will perhaps continue to use somewhat outdated methods for monitoring progress.

This is why we’ve decided to put together a comprehensive guide, so that employees can get up and running with this approach and seamlessly implement it in their everyday routine.

In this article, we’ll delve into the definition of the SMART objective concept, exploring the components it’s made up of, the significance it holds for businesses, practical examples, guidelines for writing them, and the role technology can play.

What is a SMART objective?

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/long-term goals. They tend to refer to goals that help fur­ther organ­i­sa­tion­al objec­tives too. This means compa­nies are ulti­mate­ly more pro­duc­tive and bet­ter able to advance as a result.

SMART objectives should enhance the effectiveness and clarity of business objectives. In essence, they represent a commitment to strategic precision and accountability, fostering a results-oriented mindset.

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 may define SMART objec­tives in dif­fer­ent ways.

Per­son­al devel­op­ment objec­tives, on the oth­er hand, describe spe­cif­ic areas in which employees feel they need to devel­op to achieve their career goals. They might not be specifi­cal­ly tied to cor­po­rate objec­tives, but by achiev­ing per­son­al objec­tives, employ­ees can become stronger and more con­fi­dent, thus serving as a greater asset to the team.

What does the SMART acronym consist of?

  • Spe­cif­ic and stretch­ing

The objec­tive needs to be as pre­cise as pos­si­ble. Avoid any ambi­gu­i­ties or con­fu­sion, so that the employee isn’t left wondering what they’re supposed to do. It’s more helpful for both parties to give them a truly definitive target. Objec­tives should also be stretch­ing and challeng­ing, so that employ­ees are more moti­vat­ed and feel a sense of improvement.

  • Mea­sur­able

A good SMART objec­tive should always set out what suc­cess will look like. Mea­sur­able goals give some­thing to mea­sure progress against. This makes it eas­i­er to deter­mine whether or not the desired outcome was achieved. The mea­sure can either be quan­ti­ta­tive or qualitative.

  • Achiev­able and agreed

Though it is impor­tant for employ­ees to chal­lenge them­selves, objec­tives should also be real­is­ti­c. Unre­al­is­tic or seem­ing­ly impos­si­ble goals only serve to cre­ate a cul­ture of fail­ure, which is not the envi­ron­ment you’ll be look­ing to cultivate.

Objec­tives should also be agreed between the employ­ee and their man­ag­er. This auton­o­my helps employ­ees to take own­er­ship of their roles. They need to have a say in their objec­tives and man­ag­ers need to be satisfied the objec­tives are suit­able.

  • Rel­e­vant

All per­for­mance objec­tives should be rel­e­vant to what the organ­i­sa­tion is try­ing to achieve and sup­port its overarching ambitions. With­out con­sid­er­ing rel­e­vance, even successfully executed objec­tives will be deemed a failure if they serve no benefit to the team/company.

  • Time-bound

Employ­ees and man­agers should agree on set tar­get dates for when objec­tives are to be com­plet­ed. This intro­duces a sense of urgency and allows man­agers to deter­mine whether an employ­ee is on track to accom­plish their per­son­al objec­tives. Encour­age employ­ees to set ​near-term objec­tives (ideally with a one to six-month time frame) rather than year-long objec­tives.

Near-term objec­tives can be achieved more quick­ly and are there­fore more moti­vat­ing. They’re also less like­ly to become irrel­e­vant as and when busi­ness needs change. Of course, short-term goals can also be used as mile­stones to accom­plish big­ger goals.

Why are SMART objectives important for businesses?

All too often, goal set­ting gets side­lined in busi­ness, which results in many employ­ees not knowing what is expect­ed of them at work. When this is the case, employ­ees can get frustrat­ed and dis­en­gaged. On top of this, they are fat­ed to let man­age­ment down, as they don’t have a clear pic­ture of how to appease expectations. 

This is where the SMART acronym comes into play. This sys­tem gives organ­i­sa­tions a more effective way to set­ objec­tives. Employ­ees and their line man­ag­ers can ultimately put togeth­er an action plan to improve per­for­mance, increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, and con­tribute to business targets.

SMART objec­tives pro­vide focus, direc­tion, set expec­ta­tions, and pro­vide a sense of purpose for the work­force. When employ­ees are con­fi­dent of what is expect­ed of them, they won’t waste time or ener­gy wor­ry­ing, allow­ing them to be more efficient and make the most of their talent/skillset.

Examples of SMART objectives

It’s important to assess whether your objectives truly are spe­cif­ic, so take the necessary time to con­sid­er this properly. For exam­ple,​“increase sales” is far from a spe­cif­ic objec­tive. An employ­ee might ques­tion; “More sales of what, how many more sales, and by when?” This uncer­tain­ty will only raise their stress lev­els and possibly lead to burnout (which is an issue now recog­nised by the World Health Organisation).

A spe­cif­ic objec­tive would be; “Increase sales of adver­tis­ing space this cal­en­dar year by 15%”. This gives employ­ees a clear idea of what to achieve and by when. But they should also be trackable. A quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure might be; ​“Reduce depart­men­tal over­heads by 10% this finan­cial year”, while a good qual­i­ta­tive objec­tive would be; ​“Was the project com­plet­ed on time and with­in bud­get to the sat­is­fac­tion of the customer?”.

­The over­all goals of the business should be frequently shared with employees in a language they can easily understand, and before personal objec­tives are set. In this sense, it’s better to align SMART objec­tives upward, rather than cascading goals downward. This improves trans­paren­cy while giving indi­vid­u­als a clear sense of their contribution.

How do you get employees onboard with SMART objectives?

When it comes to getting employees onboard with this method, it all boils down to communication. Once SMART objec­tives can be defined, man­agers must emphasise the impor­tance of this per­for­mance man­age­ment strategy to their employ­ees.

Employ­ees should be encour­aged to chal­lenge them­selves, while also being intentional about their unique strengths and weak­ness­es. Com­pa­nies can then utilise the appropriate tools to keep employ­ees engaged and lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion open.

By prop­er­ly embracing SMART and clear objec­tives, employ­ees will be empowered to prioritise their work­load and deliv­er results. This will further help to create busi­ness val­ue. And, as we’ve already touched upon, it’s crucial to put employees in the driver’s seat when seeking buy-in, as they’re far more likely to be driven when they feel like the architects of their own destiny.

How to successfully implement SMART objectives

By following these easy-to-imple­ment tips, you’ll be able to cre­ate SMART objec­tives that will improve long-term per­for­mance:

1. Ensure employ­ees know their limitations

Goals that are stretch­ing and chal­leng­ing are great but warn employ­ees of the dan­gers of set­ting goals that are com­plete­ly unre­al­is­tic giv­en the time and resources avail­able. If you have any employ­ees who have issues with per­fec­tion­ism, this is cer­tain­ly some­thing to keep an eye on.

Over time, employ­ees will have a better grasp of their lim­its and their rate of progress. But in the mean­time, man­agers may have to step in to ensure employ­ees aren’t over­tax­ing them­selves.

2. Be flexible

As is the case in any business environment, organ­i­sa­tion­al needs and require­ments can change at pace. What was press­ing three months ago might now seem unim­por­tant or unsup­port­ive of company objec­tives. If this is the case, employ­ees should feel confident to adapt their estab­lished goals accordingly.

How­ev­er, these changes should be mean­ing­ful and can be dis­cussed dur­ing reg­u­lar one-to-ones between managers and employees. These meetings are a great time for both parties to share their thoughts on the direction they’re heading in.

3. Use technology to assist goal-setting

Per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware makes the whole process of set­ting, agree­ing, and track­ing SMART objec­tives easy for every­one involved. Once SMART objec­tives are draft­ed by the employ­ee, the man­ag­er can indi­cate whether the objec­tives are appro­pri­ate and dis­cuss rel­e­vant changes.

This makes the set­ting of goals a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort and gives everyone a shared view of what has been agreed. Once objec­tives are for­malised within a single digital platform, it becomes easy to keep tabs of progress and give feedback in real-time. This ensures achievements are celebrated in a timely fashion and obstacles are removed when extra support is needed.

4. Explain the impor­tance of SMART objec­tives

Whether you are cre­at­ing gen­er­al SMART objec­tives or per­son­al devel­op­ment objec­tives, your employ­ees need to know that your com­pa­ny takes objec­tive-set­ting seri­ous­ly, and that goals really matter. Some may need to be educated on this matter if they’ve not worked in this way previously.

Dur­ing one of your reg­u­lar reviews, explain how effec­tive goal set­ting can impact their perfor­mance, career pro­gres­sion, and chances of advance­ment with­in the com­pa­ny. You should also take this oppor­tu­ni­ty to communicate just how impor­tant they and their role are to the busi­ness. This acknowledgement will demonstrate that you really do value them and the part they play.

5. Be trans­par­ent and caring

Organ­i­sa­tion­al trans­paren­cy is an increas­ing con­cern in the busi­ness world. Employ­ees today demand­ ever-increasing degrees of open­ness and attention to their wellbeing. For­ward-think­ing com­pa­nies are deliv­er­ing in this regard. Trans­paren­cy ultimately equates to trust and employ­ee engage­ment.

Dur­ing the goal-set­ting process, con­text is impor­tant. Explain any press­ing con­cerns or obsta­cles that might impede­ progress. If you are clear and forth­right employ­ees will be able to find solutions to problems that might otherwise have stifled them.

6. Encourage a culture of development

We all get a sense of accom­plish­ment when we have com­plet­ed a task. This is why so many of us keep to-do lists and tick off activ­i­ties when they are achieved. It makes us feel organised and pro­duc­tive. How­ev­er, easy wins aren’t always the most effec­tive moti­va­tor. If the goals in ques­tion are more challenging, we’ll put more effort into com­plet­ing them to a higher stan­dard and on time.

Encour­age employ­ees to take on responsibilities they might have ordinarily left to someone else and give them an opportunity to complete training and other educational courses so they can constantly better themselves.

Which technology should you use?                           

At Advanced, we empower organisations to set agile goals that foster collaboration, promote continuous improvement, and elevate teams to achieve better results in a constantly evolving environment.

By enabling an in-the-moment feedback model, our Performance & Talent software ensures employees are always learning and developing, while being laser-focused on their professional and personal goals.

This innovative solution makes setting and tracking SMART objectives incredibly easy, so that individuals can fulfil their potential and organisations can reach their ambitions.

Read more about Performance & Talent and how it can help you and your employees create tailored targets, improve performance, and deliver business value.