One Step Beyond S.M.A.R.T. Goals

One Step Beyond S.M.A.R.T. Goals

You say that you think things through when setting your goals. But, are you actually being smart about it?

If businesses were to set their primary goal, it would boil down to something like: “Earn as much profit as possible.” However, if you were to give this task to a new employee (and leave it at that), they would most likely be baffled by the sheer number of unanswered questions:

  • What is the strategy and which tactics are they supposed to use?
  • How are they to know if they were successful, and when is the deadline?
  • Is there a deadline, or is it just a never-ending loop of piling expectations that will never be met?
  • Is the goal possible to achieve?

And while this goal makes perfect sense on the company scale, assigning it to an individual and expecting them to yield results is by no means SMART - relevant yes, but not SMART.

SMART goals model

SMART is an acronym, and it represents the guide to setting clear and reachable goals by making them Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound.

Specific - To make a goal specific you must find an answer to the Five W questions.

  • Why are we doing it?
  • Who is involved in the project?
  • What do we want to accomplish?
  • Where is it located?
  • Which resources do we have at our disposal?

If any of these are answered with “I don’t know”, your goal is not specific enough.

Measurable - What gets measured, gets done. As the success of a goal should be defined by a compatible KPI, the result should either be a number (we increased the number of clients by X%), or a definite answer to a predefined “yes/no” question. At the least, a measurable goal should address the following questions:

  • How much/many?
  • How do I know if it’s accomplished?

If there is no way to answer these questions, it’s time to add an extra dimension to the goal definition.

  • Achievable - Be realistic. Setting a “create a self-sustaining, highly profitable business, and run it on autopilot within a month” goal will only make you feel like an underachiever. As a matter of fact, it will severely influence your own, as well as your team’s morale. On the other hand, setting easily attainable goals will leave you in the safety of your comfort zone, thus disabling you from achieving any meaningful progress. When setting a goal, you should always ask these questions:
  • Can I accomplish this goal, and how will I achieve it?
  • Based on external factors (financial and time constraints), is this goal realistic?

Relevant - Answer a straightforward question: Is this goal worth striving towards, and why? It should be relevant to you, your team, and your organization likewise. If you remain unsure, try to find answers to these questions as well:

  • Do we have suitable resources to handle it?
  • Is the timing right?
  • Is it applicable?
  • Does it match our needs?

If you tick off all the boxes, you can say you’ve set yourself a relevant goal.

Time bound - If the journey to your goal is everlasting, you won’t get anything done. There has to be a deadline, but a realistic one. This criterion is meant to prevent you from falling into the trap of completing a bunch of short-term tasks while leaving long-term goals to linger aimlessly. There is only one question a time-bound goal should answer:

  • When?

Even though the credit for creating this criterion goes to Peter Drucker and his MBO model, it was Professor Robert S. Rubin who was first to write about SMART goals. He noted that this acronym should be expanded form SMART to SMARTER, by adding two additional criteria: Evaluated and Reviewed.

Beyond SMART goals in Project Management

Setting SMART goals in project management is a no-brainer: tasks which are not defined clearly enough will cost you time, money, and employee satisfaction. However, there will be times when even setting SMART goals won’t be enough to ensure success. At that moment, you will have to level up your game.

Rather than focusing on details, agree on the goal meaning

It is not really about pointing out every aspect of the task needed to achieve the desired goal - it’s more about making it understandable for all team members. For example, our dev team employs Scrum. During their planning meetings, they use Planning poker or Scrum poker to estimate task difficulty and reach agreement on the topic. These cards help them better understand each other, as well as what it takes for the sprint goal to be achieved.

Set learning goals instead of performance goals

Yes, you achieved your goal, but what have you learned from it? Instead of solely keeping track of performance metrics, mind the process and try to find the answers to the “How can I reach this goal?” question.

By setting only performance goals, you are essentially telling your team that you do not care how things are done, as long as they get done and achieve specific results. This “the end justifies the means” approach will result in a free-for-all working environment, deprived of all collaboration.

Learning goals, on the other hand, focus on the process and are known to be excellent lessons for future reference. If a team member establishes a procedure for achieving a specific goal, all similar tasks in the future can be done the same way. This way you will increase efficiency in two ways:

  1. Less uncertainty means less time spent on tasks.
  2. Other team members can use the procedure to solve similar tasks.

Set goals you (and your team) can fully control

Everything should depend solely on you and the ability of your team. As soon as your goal starts depending on a third party (contractor, client, or any third party stakeholder), its success is no longer in your hands.

For example: “Within a next month we will reach out to 50 websites to schedule publishing for our guest posts” is a legitimate goal since it depends solely on your effort. On the other hand, you are likely to fail to reach the goal that states “We will have our guest post published on websites X, Y, and Z by the end of the week” as its success is up to someone else (in this particular case, the editor). Even if your posts meet the guest post criteria, there is no guarantee that the editor will publish them within a week.

Add implementation intentions to your goal intentions

Having a specific and measurable goal is excellent, but it won’t guarantee everything will go smoothly. But what happens when things go south? Similarly to fixing a leaky roof in the midst of heavy rain, trying to quick-fix all issues that arise during the task is a cause of unnecessary stress and chaos which often fails. So, when setting each SMART goal, make a contingency plan by introducing the implementation intention strategy.

  • Goal intention: UI design for the Homepage, Help page and Contact Us should be done by November 10th.
  • Implementation intention: If UI design for the Homepage is not done by November 3rd, introduce an additional UI designer.

However, this approach raises a legitimate question: being aware that there is a contingency plan, will team members put less effort in completing their tasks? Well, that depends on the team and their mindset. If you have a diligent team which will consider your contingency plan as a safety net they would rather not use, share the entire task with them. Otherwise, delegate tasks based on SMART goals but keep your backup plan to yourself.

Let’s wrap it up

Next time you have new employees standing in front of you, waiting for your first directive, be SMART. Give them a specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound goal to achieve. Do not let them go through the rollercoaster of emotion and uncertainty - streamline their expectations and you will have yourself motivated and efficient team members ready to tackle the tasks in front of them.