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Setting SMART Goals: Why it Matters

Smiling woman in office setting.

Anyone who has hung around me knows I’m big on setting SMART goals. But fewer know what a SMART goal is, or why it might be helpful. Let me give you a glimpse of SMART goals.

Who developed SMART goals?

For sure, Doran can be credited with the SMART framework which appeared in his 1981 article “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives”.

When were SMART goals developed?

I suppose it depends on how you count. “SMART” is different from “goal.”

During the late 19th century, Elbert Hubbard realized that people didn’t achieve the outcomes they were looking for because they lacked focus.

In 1954, Peter Drucker’s management by objectives theory spearheaded a framework similar to the later-SMART goal framework.

In the late 1960s, Edwin Locke began research that developed into our current understanding of goal setting. Then in 1968 he authored “Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives,” and showed that goal setting was related to performance outcomes.

But it was not until 1981 that the SMART framework became popularized in Doran’s article.

Should we care about this chronology and these distinctions? Maybe.

The SMART goal is grounded in goal theory. Goal theory is inextricably tied to motivation and incentive, which the SMART framework doesn’t address.

To top it off, what “SMART” stands for has been modified.

What are SMART Goals?

SMART is mnemonic acronym. But what do those letters stand for?

Most people seem to use the original SMART framework, followed by other possibilities (below, in parentheses) from different experts.  

  • S          Specific (simple, sensible, significant).
  • M        Measurable (meaningful, motivating).
  • A         Achievable (agreed, attainable, assignable).
  • R         Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based).
  • T          Time bound (time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive).

Where are SMART goals helpful?

Whether you’re setting goals in your personal or professional realm, SMART goals can be very helpful. However, they were developed for corporate use.

In either case, avoid a vague, non-smart example, such as: 

“Write a book.”

How do you write SMART goals?

Well, that depends on what you (or your organization) think SMART stands for. Using the original framework, here’s an example of a SMART goal:

“By December 31, 2022, in collaboration with my co-author Mary Smith, finish writing a 400-page, self-published, non-fiction book.”

If you look carefully, you’ll likely agree that at least four of the five criteria are obvious, and presumably, such a goal is congruent with (relevant to) the goal-setter’s bigger life goals.

Why are SMART goals important?

SMART goals are important because they:

  • force you to think through what, exactly, you want
  • are a proven framework for getting good outcomes in corporate settings
  • help individuals or teams to establish and retain focus on outcomes
  • help to avoid wasting time on activities that are meaningless, or not goal oriented

Why might SMART goals not work?

I do believe in SMART goals. But I’d warn that SMART goals don’t work if:

  • you’re not motivated or aligned around the goal. In a previous post, I talked more about motivation and four other factors that will predict your success.
  • have limited value for what Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book Built to Last call Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) that is, massive sweeping changes. In their book, Switch, Chip and Dan Heath point out, that SMART goals are “…better for steady-state situations than for change situations, because the assumptions underlying them are that the goals are worthwhile”.
  • SMART goals only address lagging measures, not leading measures. They reflect some admirable outcomes, but those outcomes cannot be achieved without establishing some leading measures along the way. In his book, Measure What Matters, John Doerr explains the difference and why it’s important. I might also argue that those lagging measures are often accomplished through daily habits. (In that case, read one of my favorite books, Atomic Habits, by James Clear.)

I’d also offer a few words of warning:

  • The history of goal-setting theory isn’t exactly the same as the writing of SMART goals.
  • The writer of the SMART goal must believe in their usefulness. One study showed that of the 4,182 employees working in 397 companies, only 14 percent of those surveyed strongly agreed that their goals would help them to achieve greatness.
  • It’s easy to get stuck in the weeds with the verbiage. I write a SMART goal, but make sure I can paraphrase and keep it visible each day.

So! Are you inclined or disinclined to set SMART goals?  

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