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Taking a SMART Approach to Setting Performance Goals

“A goal properly set is halfway reached.” —Zig Ziglar

Have recent or past projects failed to live up to expectations? Do you and your team consistently fall short of achieving desired results? There could be a myriad of reasons for this shortcoming, but failure to define actionable goals is often the most obvious. One way to define actionable goals is to develop them using the SMART acronym:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

The use of SMART goals was originated by George T. Doran in 1981. He wrote a paper titled, “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives.” Today the SMART technique used to develop goals has grown in popularity and has been adapted for use in both business and personal life. Let’s explore each component of the SMART acronym.


Specific (What exactly is to be accomplish?)

Leaders often talk about the desire to achieve goals. After all, they serve to guide our efforts to ensure success. But in order for a goal to serve as a guide, specific tasks related to the goal must be clearly defined.

Let’s consider a scenario in which a leader, who is also an IT project manager has a goal to develop a new software application (app). This app is to provide more product information to customers compared to the existing one, and be easy to navigate and aesthetically appealing.

The project manager decides to use the SMART acronym to refine the project’s goal. To meet the first criteria, Specific, he or she needs to identify the details of the goal by answering questions such as:

  • Why is the app important to the company?
  • What functionality will the app offer that is not offered currently?
  • How will customers benefit from using the app?
  • What steps need to be taken to create the app?
  • Where and how will the app be made available?
  • Is the app targeted at a specific age group, income level, etc.?
  • Which team members should be assigned to project?


Measurable (How will we know when the goal is accomplished?)

After identifying the specifics of the goal, the project manager’s next step is to identify ways to determine how the success of the project will be measured. This component identifies standards which informs the degree to which the goal must be completed. While examining this component of SMART, he or she may find answers to the questions below useful:

  • What end state do we want to achieve?
  • How will we know when we have accomplished the goal?
  • What will success look like?
  • Are there existing metrics or will they have to be developed?


Achievable (Can we realistically accomplish this goal?)

The third criteria involve deciding if the goal can be achieved within the environment in which the team must operate. The project manager will need to consider this component thoroughly, including the resources that will be required. If the required resources are not available, he or she must explore ways to obtained them.  

Considering the following question, will help determine if the goal is achievable:

  • How realistic are the projected timelines for creating the app?
  • What obstacles do I expect to encounter during the project?
  • Is there a budget established for this project?
  • Do team members have the required skills and knowledge to complete their tasks?
  • What support (internal and external) will be required to complete the project?
  • Can the app be develop given the current IT infrastructure?


Relevant (Is the goal important to the business?)

Using the SMART acronym to define how the goal relates to the organization will help identify the benefit of achieving it. Considering the app development example, scores of software applications are developed each year; however, some don’t provide the intended benefit. Therefore, the project manager must exercise due diligence before embarking on the goal. Failure to integrate the relevance component may result in a misuse of resources, which usually can’t be recouped and may cause him or her to appear out-of-touch with reality. Some questions need to be asked to determine relevance include:

  • Will customers find this app beneficial?
  • Could the app be used to attract new customers?
  • Will the app bring in additional revenue? If so, approximately how much?
  • Will maintaining the app be worth the investment to the organization?
  • What is the cost/benefit of developing the app?


Timely (When can we accomplish the goal?)

The other component of the SMART acronym is timeliness. While all of the component of SMART are important, timeliness is arguably the most important. Getting this component wrong often leads to missed deadlines resulting in cost overruns.

Continuing with the software app development example, the project manager should carefully examine whether the goal can be completed within the established time-frame, given the available resources and needs of the organization. The current state of the organization should also be considered. Questions that would be useful to answer for this component include:

  • How much time will be required by team members to complete their assigned task?
  • What tasks, if any, need to be prioritized?
  • How much time will the team require collectively to complete the project?
  • Should milestones and phases be established to monitor and report progress?
  • Can the goal be achieved within the established time-frame?

Although a scenario of an IT Project Manager tasked with developing a software application was used in the example above, the SMART acronym can be applied to any goal. Using it is essential for developing definable and actionable performance goals. Anyone desiring to be more effective in his or her professional or personal life, will find the SMART acronym a beneficial tool.

For more information about developing and using SMART goals, check out my blog at


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