We often have the necessary skills, effort, and motivation to achieve our aspirations, but ineffective goals can hinder our progress — or prevent us from achieving our aims altogether. Goals that don’t explicitly state how, when, or why you’ll complete them make it difficult to remain motivated enough to reach or exceed your targets.
But using SMART goals, a helpful set of criteria for structuring personal and professional goals, solves this problem by ensuring that every goal is intentional and effective, and will set your employees up for success to achieve and surpass their goals.
In this guide, we’ll define what SMART goals are, why they’re effective, and how they differ from OKRs. We’ll also share SMART goal examples to help you better understand the framework and how you can apply it in your workplace.
If you’re already familiar with SMART goals, skip straight to the examples.
Defining SMART Goals
SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound — the five parameters that comprise this popular goal-setting framework.
The first mention of SMART goals appeared in a November 1981 issue of the publication Management Review, in an article by consultant and former Director of Corporate Planning for Washington Water Power Company George T. Doran entitled “There’s a SMART Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives.”
The framework was then popularized by organizational development consultant and author Peter Drucker in his Management by Objectives (MBO) theory, a workplace strategy that aims to improve business performance by creating objectives that align employees and management.
Since then, many experts have continued to add to and tweak the SMART goal framework to suit their needs. Below in bold you’ll find the most commonly accepted meaning of the acronym, plus a few other alternatively used terms as well.
- Specific — or Significant, Simple, Strategic
- Measurable — or Meaningful, Motivating
- Achievable — or Attainable, Action-oriented, Appropriate, Ambitious
- Relevant — or Realistic, Results-oriented, Resourced
- Time-bound — or Time-based, Time-sensitive
One common criticism of the SMART framework is that it is inflexible, and therefore poorly suited for long-term goal-setting. To remedy this, some experts have recommended expanding the acronym to SMARTER, adding Evaluate and Revise as two final steps to the goal-setting framework. These additions encourage individuals to reflect on and learn from their experiences, even when they fall short of their objectives. The additional steps also provide an opportunity to revisit and adjust goals as new or unexpected developments arise, like a shift in business priorities or a sudden lack of available resources.
Why SMART Goals Are Effective
While having any goal to aspire toward can boost motivation, the likelihood that an individual actually achieves what they set out to do depends on a goal’s effectiveness. For example, consider these two goals for a marketer:
1. Do better at my job.
2. Take a course this quarter to sharpen my digital marketing skills.
The first goal is vague and fails to define how success is measured, making it unclear if or when this individual will ever reach their goal. On the other hand, the second goal closely follows the SMART framework.
Here’s a closer look at each principle of SMART goal-setting so you can create your own SMART goals.
- Specific: What is it you’re trying to achieve and what steps do you need to take to get there? Your goals should clearly state who’s responsible for what and what you aim to accomplish.
- Measurable: How will you evaluate success? Measurable goals allow you to easily track progress and understand the degree of your success.
- Achievable: Is this goal realistic? You don’t want to waste your time chasing overly ambitious, unfeasible targets. Having an achievable goal ensures that your objectives are both realistic and attainable given the resources, talent, and time you have available.
- Relevant: How does this goal relate to the success of the business? Every goal needs a “why.” Relevant goals should connect your objectives back to your own personal development or the overarching goals of the company.
- Time-bound: What is your goal’s deadline? Every effective goal needs a timeline so you can track progress and know if you’re trending ahead of or behind schedule.
With each of these parameters met, the second goal in the above example eliminates ambiguity, sets a clear timeframe, and makes it easy to monitor progress and evaluate success. This framework gives employees the sense of direction they need to stay motivated and achieve their personal and performance objectives.
How SMART Goals Differ from OKRs
While SMART goals and objective and key results (OKRs) both measure success based on outcomes, here are a few ways these popular goal-setting frameworks differ.
The pair’s biggest difference lies in how they are formatted. OKRs are made up of one objective and two to five key results, or the metrics against which you measure progress toward the objective. The purpose of the key results is to break down a larger overarching goal into smaller tasks and milestones.
SMART goals, on the other hand, just have to follow the SMART guidelines outlined above. While SMART goals stand alone, a team or individual can create as many SMART goals as needed.
OKRs are intended for formal company-wide goal-setting and are often cascaded down throughout an organization to improve alignment, while SMART goals are better suited for individual use. While some smaller businesses might favor SMART goals over OKRs, this goal-setting framework usually isn’t the best fit for larger organizations; having too many SMART goals across different company levels can be confusing and difficult to track for larger enterprises.
Because one key aspect of SMART goals is being attainable, these goals are usually more practical and feasible to achieve. OKRs, by contrast, are designed to be more aspirational. While they are still ultimately achievable, OKRs tend to be stretch goals in order to motivate the organization, department, or individual to perform at their best and push the boundaries of what they thought possible.
OKRs are typically set quarterly and revisited every one to two weeks in one-on-ones and department meetings, as well as monthly in company all-hands meetings. This allows OKRs to stay flexible and be updated as needed, while still providing clear guidance for the organization.
SMART goals tend to be used on a more ad hoc basis, making them ideal for projects and personal goals. Since they can give teams a clear understanding of what aims a project needs to accomplish, SMART goals are a great way to improve alignment, productivity, and motivation.
“SMART goals and OKRs can coexist in any organization, especially since SMART goals are useful for one-off goals that don’t necessarily fit into existing OKRs.”
OKRs vs. SMART Goals: A Comparison
Here’s an example of what these two goals frameworks would look like in practice.
As you can see, while the SMART goal answers what this team is setting out to achieve, it fails to answer how they plan to accomplish it. OKRs, on the other hand, have built-in accountability and specificity thanks to key results — part of the reason this framework is so well-suited for organizational goal-setting.
Of course, this is not a question of either/or — SMART goals and OKRs can coexist in any organization, especially since SMART goals are useful for one-off goals that don’t necessarily fit into existing OKRs or overarching business plans. Together, these complementary goal-setting frameworks allow your employees to reap the benefits of having structured and flexible goals to aspire to, work toward, and achieve.
Examples of SMART Goals in the Workplace
You can use SMART goals for both personal and professional goal-setting. Here are a few examples that illustrate how to use the SMART framework to set project, department, manager, and employee goals.
4 SMART Goal Examples
1. For a Project
Initial Goal Idea: We want to improve interdepartmental collaboration.
- Specific: We want to implement a new project management software this month that allows employees to communicate and collaborate.
- Measurable: We will aim for a product adoption rate of 75%.
- Achievable: We already purchased the software, so now we just need to ensure it is implemented successfully within our company.
- Relevant: We’ve received feedback that employees find it difficult to collaborate with other teams, assign task ownership, and stay up-to-date on project progress. Implementing this solution can help employees connect asynchronously and improve alignment.
- Time-bound: We’ll roll out the software this month and conduct four training sessions to get employees up to speed.
SMART Goal: Implement a new project management software this month and ensure the employee adoption rate reaches 75%. By conducting four training sessions, we will make sure that employees are familiar with the new tool and how they can use it to collaborate asynchronously with teammates.
2. For an HR Department
Initial Goal Idea: We want our employees to love where they work.
- Specific: We want to build a workplace with high employee satisfaction scores.
- Measurable: We want to improve our employee net promoter scores (eNPS) by 17% this year.
- Achievable: We believe this increase is achievable as we are launching a few new People initiatives this year that we think will significantly boost employee well-being, job satisfaction, and overall eNPS.
- Relevant: Workplace culture and employee experience are top priorities for our business this year since we plan on growing the team significantly in the near future, so increasing eNPS will let us know we’re making impactful workplace improvements.
- Time-bound: We want to accomplish this goal in under one year.
SMART Goal: We will increase eNPS by 17% this year in order to better understand employee loyalty and engagement. New People initiatives (like a paid sabbatical, improved parental leave, and an increase in employer 401(k) matching) will help us create a stronger workplace culture and better experiences for our team members.
3. For a Manager
Initial Goal Idea: I want to be a better leader for my team.
- Specific: I want to improve my soft skills (like communication, delegation, and empathy) to grow as a leader and better support my team.
- Measurable: I will work to ensure my manager net promoter score (mNPS) on the next engagement survey is above 85.
- Achievable: Based on my past mNPS scores and the fact that I now have a leadership coach to help me work on specific soft skills, this goal feels realistic.
- Relevant: By being a better manager, I can help my team be more engaged and efficient, which will help drive positive business outcomes.
- Time-bound: I will achieve this goal by the end of the year.
SMART Goal: I will improve my soft skills (like communication, delegation, and empathy) in order to grow as a leader and better support my team. By meeting with a leadership coach every two weeks and applying those learnings in meetings with my team, I will work to improve my mNPS score from 70 to 85 for this calendar year. This will help drive team engagement and efficiency, so we can contribute more toward impactful business initiatives.
4. For an Employee
Initial Goal Idea: I want to grow our company’s social media following.
- Specific: I want to grow the company’s Instagram following by 2,500 followers — from 10,000 to 12,500.
- Measurable: I can check our follower count to track progress and measure success.
- Achievable: Since we already have 10,000 followers, this is a realistic milestone for us to achieve in one quarter. We also have brand partnerships lined up with three different companies; they all have follower counts of over 50,000 and will cross-promote our planned monthly Instagram giveaways.
- Relevant: Increasing the reach of the company’s social media accounts can help improve brand awareness, which is currently a top business priority.
- Time-bound: I have one quarter to reach this new follower target.
SMART Goal: Grow our company’s Instagram by increasing follower count to 12,500 in Q2. To achieve this, I will increase posting frequency to five times a week; run a monthly Instagram giveaway with our business partners; and identify thought leaders and influencers in our space, connect with and develop relationships with them, and share their content in our Instagram stories.
On the surface, goal-setting may seem simple, but creating truly effective goals requires knowledge, thought, and planning. Luckily, the SMART goal-setting framework can shore up vague and unclear goals, and increase your employees’ shot at success. When your employees follow the SMART acronym and keep their objectives specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound, they’ll create goals that will motivate them to do their best work and drive optimal results for your company in the process.
Ready to implement SMART goals within your organization? Download our SMART goals template to learn how to use goals to build a sense of urgency and align employee tasks with business targets.