I believe that metrics are the life blood of all organizations. Those units of measurement that can be quantified and tracked. Revenue, profit, head count, turnover. Let’s get even more specific. There are metrics around individual productivity, team productivity, number of customer complaints, projects completed, sales made, leads converted, hotfixes made, patches released, customer satisfaction, number of accidents, social media impressions, donations received.
All of those metrics, those quantified units, gauge organizational health in different ways. You as a manager are responsible for a certain set of those metrics, and how you and your team take ownership of those metrics is through the use of goals.
Goals are desired outcomes for metrics of interest. How much money you want to save for retirement, how much weight you want to lose for a New Year’s resolution, how many books you want to read over the next couple of months. But that’s at an individual, personal level. Apply that to an organization, with various teams and departments who all have different needs, priorities, and desired outcomes.
Goals are important because they can help create order from the chaos of all those metrics. They can provide a clear sense of direction to guide employee behavior, help measure the level of success across individuals and teams, and they can even be motivating or inspiring when certain kinds of goals are set. But most importantly, goals allow for shared alignment, uniting team members and teams toward a common purpose.
So how can you get the most out of goals? There are a variety of goal setting frameworks to address that question. We’ve got KPIs, or key performance indicators. We have MBOs, or management by objectives. Then we have OKRs, or objectives and key results. And finally, we have what I’ll be focusing on in this episode: SMART goals. I’ll be kicking it up a notch by talking about how you can make your goal setting even SMARTER.
I’ll be going over the mystery of SMARTER goal setting throughout this episode. First I’ll give an overview of the SMARTER goal framework, and then I’ll break that framework down into its individual parts.
In 1981, George Doran wrote a short paper that had a huge impact, titled “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives.” He stated that, “Managers are confused by all the verbiage from seminars, books, magazines, consultants, and so on. Let me suggest, therefore, that when it comes to writing effective objectives, corporate officers, managers, and supervisors just have to think of the acronym SMART.” That’s what started it all. You’ve probably heard of SMART goals, and may even use them frequently in your organization or team.
What’s kind of funny, if not ironic, is that George Doran created that acronym as an easy guide for managers and leaders to remember five important aspects of goal setting. Even though the acronym itself is easy to remember, given that it’s lasted almost 40 years, the individual parts of the acronym have taken on a life of their own and aren’t as easy to remember. Why aren’t they as easy to remember, you might ask? Well, hop online and search for SMART goals.
To save you some time, I’ll give you a quick summary: there are a lot of different perspectives on what “smart” (S.M.A.R.T.) goals are. Here’s a taste of what I found online. For S there’s specific, strategic, and significant. For M there’s meaningful, measurable, and motivational. A is the mother lode, with achievable, adjustable, ambitious, attainable, assignable, aligned, and agreed-upon. For R there’s realistic, relevant, and results-oriented. And for T, there’s timely, time-related, and tangible. Basically the shell of S.M.A.R.T. has remained, but it’s been hollowed out to make room for whatever words people want to put into it. All of those words I listed are important, but some more so than others.
How do we narrow down that list to the most important parts? First, let’s go to the source. In George Doran’s original article, his acronym stood for specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-related. Then I did various comparisons online and found that the most common version of S.M.A.R.T. nowadays stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely.
Even though there are a ton of alternatives, three words are pretty consistent, with those being specific, measurable, and timely (or, you know, time-related). Three out of five ain’t bad. What’s left is A and R. Three words I listed earlier revolve around a similar idea: achievable, attainable, and realistic. So I’ll go with achievable, to stick with the common version. Last but not least is R. Realistic is already accounted for with achievable, and results-oriented is kind of redundant with setting up a goal in the first place. Meaning that relevant is the word here. So we have specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. I could’ve just said “Yeah, I’ll use the common version,” but I wanted to dive a bit deeper to explain my reasoning.
Earlier in this episode I mentioned SMARTER goal setting. Where’s that extra E and R coming from? Well, just as the meaning of S.M.A.R.T. has evolved over the past 40 years, so too has our understanding of goal setting. Likewise, you know the phrase, work smarter, not harder? That’s what I’m trying to capture here – that goals can be SMART, but yours can be SMARTER. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if someone comes out with the SMARTEST goals framework, but we’ll just stay SMARTER for now. Either way, E stands for “evaluate,” and R stands for “revise.” It’s not enough to just focus on the characteristics of your goals, like being specific and timely, but also how you interact with those goals, by evaluating and revising them. That’s working SMARTER.
The main takeaway from this first section is that the acronym S.M.A.R.T. to describe goals was created to help people improve the way they approach, set, and pursue goals. Even though the term has evolved in various ways, SMART stands for goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. And if you want SMARTER goal setting, you’ll need to evaluate and revise those goals.
First, goals should be specific. Goals help guide how we behave and think by creating and clarifying priorities. When goals aren’t specific, they don’t offer guidance, they don’t narrow our focus.
Throughout this section I’ll use an example of a Sales goal. Let’s say you’re a sales manager setting a goal with a team member, and you say “Here’s a good goal – make a lot of sales!” And then that’s the goal. What happens in a month when you’re reviewing goal progress with that team member? Nothing, really. Because there’s nothing to track against. You can’t be halfway to a lot. What’s a lot is different from one person to another. And technically you don’t even know if that goal means number of products sold, dollar value of total products sold, average dollar value of all products sold, and so on. Because you and your team member weren’t specific.
Goals that are specific set clear expectations for employees. What do you want to accomplish? What’s the purpose of the goal? Who’s involved? Are there any limitations or other requirements to keep in mind? So rather than setting a goal of “Make a lot of sales,” it could be “In this quarter, aim for selling at least 100 products.” With the rationale that your team member sold 90 products last quarter, so you think they can increase their output this quarter.
That’s to say nothing of commission, fees, anything like that – I’m trying to keep the example pretty high level. But we can see that the specificity of “at least 100 this quarter” will be able to guide the team member’s efforts much more than just “sell a lot.”
And just because a goal itself is specific doesn’t mean you need to be specific on how that goal is achieved. That process should be a combination of you coaching your team and giving them the flexibility to pursue goals in ways that work best for them, their working styles, and their strengths. When setting up goals with your team members, think about it like you’re in the passenger seat of a car. You can point out a destination on a map and offer guidance when they get lost or get too far off the main path, but you shouldn’t be a backseat driver. You shouldn’t dictate every stop, turn, and lane change. Let them drive.
The second aspect of SMARTER goal setting is that goals should be measurable. This allows goals to be tracked, to ensure progress is being made toward goal achievement. What exact metrics are used, and how many or how much?
Back to the example. Sell 100 products this quarter or sell a lot. One hundred products is measurable – you can count that. It can be quantified. But “selling a lot” isn’t measurable because we don’t know what “a lot” means and it’s not quantifiable. Is 100 a lot? That depends on your team member’s past performance. If they sold 20 products last quarter, then yeah, 100 is a lot. But if they sold 200, then no, 100 isn’t a lot. But we can’t know that because “make a lot of sales” isn’t specific or measurable.
The third aspect of SMARTER goal setting is that goals should be achievable. This taps into reality – is the goal realistic? Can it be achieved within the time frame given? Can it be achieved based on the employee’s knowledge, skills, abilities, interests, strengths, weaknesses, and motivations? Can it be achieved at all?
This aspect requires the most finesse, the most skill on your part as a manager, to navigate. The goal can’t be so low that the employee could easily achieve their target, potentially resulting in boredom or having the expectation that all goals in your team are that easy. At the same time, the goal shouldn’t be set so high that the employee is frustrated, overwhelmed, or even resentful of having such an unrealistic target. Goals should be reasonable. You need to be reasonable when setting goals or helping team members set their goals. If a goal is unrealistic to achieve, it’s meaningless to have set in the first place.
Back to the example. If your team members, on average, sell 100 products per quarter, then it’s unreasonable to set a goal of selling 20 products or 500 products this quarter. Both are unrealistic. Your team members could easily achieve a goal of selling 20 products, but that low of a goal means nothing because that incentivizes your team to aim low and put in as little effort as possible. On the other hand, selling 500 products, when the average is 100, is unrealistic. It likely can’t be achieved, and is therefore meaningless. There’s always a sweet spot in determining whether a goal is achievable, and that comes down to you and your team member to think through those goalposts.
The fourth aspect of SMARTER goal setting is that goals should be relevant. There are several types of relevance here. Like is the goal relevant to an individual’s role and responsibilities? Relevant to their capabilities and growth potential? Relevant to their training? Relevant to your team?
This aspect is about alignment. That the goal aligns with the individual team member, other team members’ goals, and the overall plans and purpose of the team. Instead of setting a goal to sell 100 products, you could instruct a team member to write 10 blog posts this quarter. It’s specific, measurable, and let’s say the team member is a strong writer, so it’s also achievable. But is it relevant? Nope. In this example you’re a sales manager, so time spent on writing blog posts means time not spent on trying to make sales, which is the primary focus of that team member’s role and your team overall. This may seem like a silly example, but managers sometimes set goals for their teams that are completely misaligned with what employees should be doing.
The fifth aspect of SMARTER goal setting is that goals should be timely. It’s not enough for a goal to be specific, measurable, and so on – employees need to know by what date a goal needs to be accomplished. A deadline allows employees to prioritize which goals should come first, and it can help create a sense of urgency depending on how far out the deadline is.
As with being achievable, there’s a sweet spot to timeliness. The deadline can’t be too soon, or that’s unrealistic and, you know, meaningless. It also can’t be too far out in the future, or else it won’t be a priority and perhaps becomes out of sight, out of mind. That’s why monthly or quarterly goals are great, to give employees smaller chunks of prioritization. And for goals that can’t really be grouped into monthly or quarterly chunks, make sure that there are at least some kind of milestones throughout the year. Like if you have a goal of selling 100 products this quarter, then that’s roughly 33 per month.
The sixth aspect of SMARTER goal setting is that goals should be evaluated. This is where we move beyond goal characteristics and into goal interaction. Evaluation is about reviewing and reflecting. What’s working, what’s not. What’s gone well, what hasn’t. What’s gotten in your way, and what’s been helpful along the way.
This step is best done during one-on-one conversations with individual team members, at least when you’re considering individual goals and not team goals. What were the results? How much control did we have over those results? Are we satisfied or perhaps even happy with those results? Did we set the right goals? What caused the results we got? Did we track our goal progress in a way that promoted transparency and accountability?
This stage should always happen after milestone markers that depends on how your team tracks goals. By that, I mean if you set monthly goals, then you need to meet at least monthly. If you set quarterly goals, then meet at least quarterly. And you’ll always have multiple goals at once – it’s never as though you only ever have one and only one goal at a time. So if you have an annual goal, you can evaluate that at the same time you’re evaluating a monthly or quarterly goal.
The final aspect of SMARTER goal setting is that goals can be revised. Notice that I said can be revised, not should be revised. If the goals are SMART and you’re evaluating them with your team member regularly, then you may not have to revise anything. But goals aren’t perfect, and neither are situations. Stuff comes up. A life event, a change in the industry, downsizing in your company, a change in materials or distributors for things that you might sell. A lot can happen. So you, and especially organizational leadership, shouldn’t act as though goals are 100 percent set in stone.
Revision happens during evaluation, so these two stages go hand-in-hand. As you evaluate in general, you need to evaluate whether goals should be revised. What should we change about upcoming goals and what should we keep the same? How can we ensure better results than last time? Are there different metrics we can track that better represent performance? Do other or additional people need to be included on these goals?
This stage is the most interesting from an ethical and fairness perspective. First, you may not be able to revise a goal due to some company policy or philosophy from leadership, so you’re stuck with the goal you set. If you work in this kind of culture, then that means you need to be even more careful and thoughtful when first setting your goals. Likewise, some managers or leaders might think “Wait, if goals can be revised, then that means anyone can set whatever target they want and always hit it!” Like if you set a goal with a team member for them to sell 100 products this quarter, and they only sell 50, then you could revise the goal for next quarter to also be 50. Or if the annual goal is 400 products and they’re only at 150 at the end of the second quarter, then reduce the annual goal to 300. That is important to consider, not only from a growth and productivity perspective, but also whether that can be seen or framed as fair to other team members. Goal revision requires a lot of consideration, especially if you’re revising it before the originally-set target was achieved.
The main takeaway from this section is that goals guide employee behaviors and priorities. Goals should be specific so they set clear expectations, measurable so they can be tracked, achievable so they’re realistic, relevant so they’re worthwhile, and timely so they can be prioritized. Finally, goals should be evaluated and revised for coaching and course correction.
As a recap of this episode, I discussed the origins of SMART goals, the evolution of what S.M.A.R.T. means, and finally a further evolution toward SMARTER goal setting. Even though you’ve heard me say it several times now, SMARTER goal setting means that goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely, and that goals should be evaluated and can be revised.
If you’re interested in learning more about goals, we’ve got three resources to help you and your team out. We have a template for SMART goals. Second, we have an ebook titled The Power Workbook for Setting Employee Goals and OKRs. It’s the basis for quite a bit of this episode, and it goes in-depth with SMART goals and OKRs, including some worksheets and lots of good goal-related quotes. Finally, we have an ebook titled 5 Sure-Fire Ways to Set Goals that Get Results. This one covers goals from a higher-level perspective and includes research we conducted on some employee perceptions about goals.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss SMART recognition.