As we define our goals and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for whatever business or personal case, we need to make sure we’re actually creating objectives that matter. Goals, objectives, and KPIs are tools. They have a use. Like any tool, they need to be designed and used with intention, and a best practice of defining goals and KPIs is using the SMART criteria.

In this article, we’ll define the SMART criteria with relatable examples and provide some best practice guidelines for making your own SMART goals.

What are SMART goals?

SMART goals are ones that set objectives and KPIs in a precise and easy to communicate way. First described in print 1981 by author George T. Doran and later expanded by Professor Robert S. Ruben, SMART is an acronym that stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

SMART states that clear, attainable, strategic goals are the most effective way to create concrete milestones and metrics. Instead of a general goal like “increase sales,” we might consider a SMARTer goal like “increase February’s year-over-year premium subscription sales in California by 4%.”

SMART goals are the individual steps of a well-considered strategy to achieving larger objectives.

If you were running a marathon or climbing a mountain, SMART goals would be the mile markers along the way, letting you know where you are and how well you’re doing. It isn’t just about getting to the end, but rather what steps to take to get there. SMART KPIs are what SMART goals use as the accountable measurements, with a start and end.

Specific

Being clear about your goals and expectations is the first step to reaching them. When goals are too wide or vague, they are easy to miss. If the definition is too broad, they become harder to measure and also harder to achieve. Being too vague allows for a lot of error and misunderstanding. It’s like climbing a mountain not knowing how long the path is, how long it’s supposed to take, what the conditions are, or even what to wear while doing it. With specific goals, you can see a path form from start to finish. Specific KPIs define the path even further with benchmarks, ensuring everyone knows exactly where you are.

When you create your SMART goal, try to answer questions like:

  • What are the concrete steps in our plan?
  • Who is necessary to make it happen?
  • Where will our efforts take place?
  • Why is this valuable to our long-term strategy?
  • How do we prioritize this goal compared to other goals?

Example of a Specific SMART goal: If Superman is trying to “save the world,” then he’s going to be more specific by narrowing the objective to “prevent Lex Luthor’s plan.” This helps Superman be a lot more focused in his goals and helps him prioritize stopping a supervillain over saving the endangered ivory-billed woodpecker from extinction.

Measurable

If you can’t measure something, you can’t tell if you’re performing well or if you’re off track and need to course-correct. In addition to being specific in your goals, you need to be able to quantify your data or indicate where you are progressing towards your goal. Setting measurable goals and criteria also lets everyone involved evaluate their performance and stay on track.

When you create your SMART goal, try to answer questions like:

  • What data do we need?
  • Where will our data live and how will we access it?
  • Is our data reliable and verifiable?
  • What are reasonable milestones?
  • How much is enough and how much is not enough?
  • How will we know we’ve accomplished our goal?

Example of a Measurable SMART goal: If your goal is to climb a mountain in a day, then you’d likely do some research and plan out how many miles to hike per hour and track your progress. You would then measure your distance and time according to your goal. This is a much SMARTer plan than instead looking up to the top of the mountain in the afternoon and just starting to walk, hoping to the top by sundown.

Achievable

It’s important to look at your end objectives and plan out goals that are within realistic capabilities. It’s also important not to get too carried away and use far-fetched or unreachable goals as motivators, constantly chasing an impossibly lofty goal. Allow yourself, and your stakeholders, to feel motivated by the satisfaction of achievement and real progress. When setting goals, be ambitious and push for success, but also understand internal and external limits. Achievement needs to be sustainable.

When you create your SMART goal, try to answer questions like:

  • What are the necessary steps to achieve this goal?
  • How much direct control do we have over achieving this goal?
  • Is this goal realistic compared to previous performance?
  • What is the precedent?
  • Why do we think this goal is achievable?
  • What external (and internal) factors might prevent us from achieving this goal?

Example of an Achievable SMART goal: Search-and-rescue dogs’ have a singular purpose to find survivors of disasters like earthquakes or terrorism attacks. In order to keep the dogs motivated in especially fatal disaster areas, dog handlers will sometimes hide “fake” survivors for the dogs to rescue so the dogs will be motivated to continue their hard work. The gratification of achievement empowers and sustains the continued good behavior of achievement.

Realistic (and Relevant)

Similar to the achievable criteria above, goals also need to be realistic and relevant. Setting goals that are completely out of reach won’t make your team strive to reach harder, but at the same time setting goals that are too easy won’t make your team better.

It’s also important to make sure your goals are relevant to your goals or business objectives over time. KPIs need to measure your business goals over short-term and long-term strategies and it’s ok to adjust criteria as time passes. What works now won’t always work the same later, and it’s important to identify when business needs change. Stay aware of your long-term goals, but don’t be afraid to readjust the short-term tactics that will help achieve those long-term plans.

When you create your SMART goal, try to answer questions like:

  • Why is this the goal now?
  • Why wasn’t this the goal in the past?
  • Who are the right people to pursue this goal?
  • How will this goal advance a long-term strategy?
  • What is the anticipated return on investment (ROI)?
  • What would it mean if we failed to reach this goal?

Example of a Realistic SMART goal: If your ultimate goal is to climb Mount Everest but you’ve never climbed a whole mountain before, it would be unrealistic to head straight to Everest. The criteria suggested above indicate that you should first be asking yourself why you should be trying to hike Mount Everest at all, if you're the right person to be hiking Mount Everest, and what it would mean if you didn't make it to the top. If you decided to proceed, you then would need to plot out a realistic training schedule for the feat.

Time-bound

The final letter of SMART is often overlooked, but it’s incredibly important to have a time-frame for your goals. A time-bound goal can consist of either start and end-points or a collection of timed parameters or milestones. You may have a deadline to reach certain objectives in order to stay on track. Or you may want to track metrics across a period of time, whether it’s daily, monthly, or quarterly. Whatever you choose, plan ahead of time to make sure your KPIs can be measured as time passes in order for you to reach your goals in a timely manner.

When you create your SMART goal, try to answer questions like:

  • Is this achievable in the given time frame?
  • What is the longest and shortest possible time to achieve this goal?
  • What potential blockers or time-related factors could delay progress?
  • What have we accomplished in similar time frames in the past?
  • When and how will we check for progress?
  • What do we do if we’re off-track halfway through?
  • Are there any times where progress might naturally slow down or speed up?

Example of a Time-bound SMART goal: For a simple health example, consider everyone’s favorite New Year’s Resolution: “I’m going to go to the gym more.” A SMART fitness goal might include defining exactly how often and for how long we’ll go to the gym. Instead of a very general goal, you might resolve to go to the gym three days a week for one hour each day, for the next month. Or, if you wanted to lose weight, you might make a time-bound fitness goal like this: “I’m going to lose 10 pounds over the next three months.” You might then decide on check-in milestones every two weeks to stay on track. Of course, it would be up to the rest of the SMART criteria to determine other details about the how of this goal.

Best practices: How to write your own SMART goals

When we put together all five of the criteria in SMART, we end up with compelling and direct objectives. But that’s not the whole story. Now that you’re equipped with a concrete definition of SMART, here are a few best practices to consider when setting your own goals.

1. Create goals that reflect your unique needs

SMART goals are only as good as the KPIs you set. Not all business needs are the same, even within the same industry. Choosing KPIs that don’t reflect your business goals, just because someone else is using them or a post on the internet tells you to, can send you in the wrong direction. While we do talk at length about certain metrics to avoid, you should always carefully consider what makes the most sense for your personal or business needs.

2. Use SMART as a form of communication and transparency

Like any form of communication, having clear information helps teams and managers act upon it better. SMART is meant to help provide a way to communicate exactly where you are and how well you’re doing. When everyone in the business understands the goals and criteria to reach them, they can work together to succeed.

3. Carefully plan the best route, and check in along the way

It’s a great idea to plan the order of operations and the order of achievements that will help you best reach long-term goals. Because SMART emphasizes specific and bite-sized goals, you’re likely to have a series of goals; some goals will be in flight simultaneously and some will be dependant on the success of other goals.

Use historical data to help anticipate issues along the way and plan for check-in milestones to adjust KPIs. If you have a goal that is time-bound to a year, you might plan to check in each quarter. Much like using a GPS, check-ins can help tell you if you’re veering off-track.

4. Remember that SMART isn’t just for large company or team goals

SMART is a set of criteria most often cited as an incredibly useful way to set and track business objectives and metrics, but they also work well on the personal level. Feel empowered to use the SMART criteria for, or as, an individual or small team. When employees can track how well they’re performing with great goals and metrics, they can better see how their performance will directly impact the organization’s performance on the larger scale.

Or, if you’d like, consider using SMART outside of a business context entirely. There’s nothing stopping you from applying this knowledge to a New Year’s Resolution, fitness goal, job search, home improvement project, or anything else.

5. Understand that SMART only works if the long-term strategy is good

It is important to also acknowledge that SMART has two distinct flaws.

First, SMART breaks down a larger strategy into small, digestible, and (yes) achievable parts. If the overall strategy or vision is rotten, then SMART will only help you achieve the goals that poor strategy dictates.

Second, SMART is a method of setting goals, not a way to analyze successes and failures. When setting goals, be sure to build in time to make your goal setting process SMARTER by including the self-explanatory Evaluate and Review stages. Always keep an eye on ways to design your next SMART goals better than your last goals. When you evaluate: think about what pitfalls popped up, about questions you should have asked, people who should have been involved, and so on. At the end of the day, SMART is just a set of criteria and set of considerations; it’s up to us to reflect on our methods in order to set better and better goals.

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