Before you start
- Find somewhere quiet to sit.
- Clear your mind of pressing matters.
- Have a pencil and paper to-hand, or a flipchart / whiteboard if working with others.
We recommend reading this article first, but once you’ve done so, please click the links below for Excel templates you might find useful. You can use these templates freely, but we ask you not to redistribute:
What is it?
Though there are some variations to the exact words used for the acronym, SMART objectives are those that fit the following criteria:
- S = Specific
- M = Measurable
- A = Attainable
- R = Realistic
- T = Time-bound
These sorts of objectives might not actually differ to those that you set already. However, the SMART framework ensures that all your objectives fit a pattern and style Let’s explore each heading in more detail, so you better understand what each one means and how to get the best from the framework.
Being clear and precise about your objective sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many don’t consider this. Good objectives are not vague. They have sufficient specificity to avoid ambiguity on what the intention of the objective is.
For your business, this could mean specifying exactly which product sales you want to drive, rather than just saying “drive sales”. You might want to say which countries to expand into, rather than just “expand international footprint”. Here are some examples:
- “Drive sales” becomes “Drive sales of widget A”
- “Expand to other countries” becomes “Expand operations into Italy, Spain and Poland”
Having an objective that can’t be measured will always beg the question: “how will we know when we’ve achieved the objective?”.
An objective with measures doesn’t need to be complicated, however, you should think of adding a more precise level of detail. It allows you to be very clear about what’s expected. You can use this element as a clear target. For example,
- “Increase sales of widget A” becomes “Increase sales of widget A by 20%”
- “Expand operations into Italy, Spain and Poland” becomes “Expand operations into Italy, Spain and Poland, with first 10 customer orders taken successfully”
It’s pointless defining an objective that fits all other components of SMART, if you make it unachievable. If that isn’t enough, the person expected to deliver the objective will unlikely feel motivated if they also think the target is impossible to hit.
When designing objectives, you should consider what behaviours an unachievable objective will result in. The undesired outcome is something covered further down.
That said, you do want objectives to be a stretch to drive a level of increased productivity or output.
Whilst it might initially seem like a duplication of ‘Attainable’, this component represents the energy, motivation and resources needed to deliver the objective.
An objective can be attainable but there’s no support from senior stakeholders to make it viable, or realistic. Equally, the timing for the business might not align due to other priorities, funding or market readiness.
Always make sure your objectives are supported by the senior leadership in your organisation, even if that’s via their own more strategic objectives.
Put simply, have a date for when the completed objective is needed by. Agreeing this up-front means everyone knows what the clear aim is, before making a start.
It’s important to agree this component in conjunction with the previous components too, since delivering something in half the expected amount of time could make it impossible. Building on our earlier examples:
- “Increase sales of widget A by 20%” becomes “Increase sales of widget A by 20% by end of Q1 2021”
- “Expand operations into Italy, Spain and Poland, with first 10 customer orders taken successfully” becomes “Expand operations into Italy, Spain and Poland, with first 10 customer orders taken successfully by end of February 2021”
Let’s get started
Step 1: Think about what needs to be achieved
All objectives start at the strategic level and are cascaded down through the hierarchy. At each level, the objectives are turned into something relevant for that level of accountability and responsibility.
If you’re not lucky enough to be in a business that’s very organised, you’ll need to first identify what your division or team is expected to achieve. These expectations might have only been shared verbally, or even simply implied. Make sure you frame these at the right level for you and your part of the organisation. For example, if you normally work on projects then think about your objectives being centred around project-level. If you’re normally expected to deliver divisional transformation, then make sure your objectives are pitched at that level.
What you set out at this stage should ideally contribute towards a well-publicised goal for the business.
Once you’ve thought of some appropriate things to deliver, you should try breaking them down into smaller tasks so you understand what needs to be achieved in order for you to be successful. These sub-objectives might not be at the right level for you, but they could be assigned to your team to help you achieve your goal, and will give you a better idea of what’s realistic and attainable.
Step 2: Apply the SMART framework
Follow the above definition for SMART to reword your objective. This step should be quite straight-forward, with the exception of knowing when to deliver the objective by. For that, you might need to consult your line manager, peers and team.
Step 3: Review with your line manager
You will get personal satisfaction from achieving your objectives, but it will be more rewarding if you’re achieving them with your line manager’s knowledge and oversight.
Both you and your line manager will get professional kudos from you having SMART objectives, so don’t be shy to share them for review.
Step 4: Keep them alive
Having a set of SMART objectives is great, for what you know now. Business is always changing, however, and so should your objectives.
Agree with your line manager a cadence for reviewing your progress, and for retiring old objectives and creating new ones. If you have a bonus attached to your objectives, then be careful of too much fluctuation and change. Our guidance as always is “keep it simple!”.