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.
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.