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A study by psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews reveals that people who write down their goals are 20% more likely to accomplish them

Sure, you can put pen to paper when it comes to your goals and list them in order of importance. 

But is that a SMART goal setting strategy?

Brian Tracy, CEO of Brian Tracy International, explains why you need to go a step further. He argues that regular goals can have one or more of the following disadvantages:

  • Arbitrary: goals that are arbitrary don’t add significant value to your life.
  • Not practically achievable: stretch goals that inspire you are great but, if they’re not practically achievable, they may lead to loss of motivation, stress, and disappointment.
  • Difficult to measure: if you can’t measure the goal, it’s hard to determine your progress.
  • Lack of a timeframe: goals that aren’t time-bound are often put on a perpetual snooze where they’re not completely abandoned, but not achieved either.

These are loose ends that you can fix by writing SMART goals. 

George T. Doran first coined the term SMART goals in his paper called “There’s a SMART Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives” in 1981 and they’ve been widely adopted ever since. 

So, enough teaser, let’s find out the what and how.

What are SMART goals?

The SMART acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound goals. 

When you set goals using the SMART goals framework, it helps you plan a course of action for achieving your goals more effectively.

It help you to measure your progress and hold yourself accountable to accomplish the goals.

For instance, your goal could be to improve your company’s annual employee retention rate. That’s a vague goal.

Now, let’s re-formulate through using the SMART framework:

The HR manager should improve the company’s annual employee retention from 55% to 60% by the end of Q2 of 2022 by using the information from surveys to understand why employees are leaving and act on it.

Now you’ve got a SMART goal.

How to write a SMART goal

Let’s use the same example of improving employee retention rate to see how you’d write a SMART goal.

Your current goal is to improve your company’s annual retention rate. As we discuss next, you then use each component of the framework to convert it into a SMART goal.

1. Specific

Your goals need specificity. Improving retention rate is great, but to turn it into a specific goal, you also need to determine who will be accountable for the improvement, and the course of action required to achieve this goal.

Essentially, specific goals answer three questions:

  • What you want to achieve: Increase the annual employee retention rate from 55% to 60%.
  • The person accountable for the goal: In this case, an ideal person to be held accountable for the goal can be the HR manager.
  • Action plan: Use the exit surveys to understand why employees are leaving the company and address those issues.

2. Measurable

Once you’ve got clarity on precisely what you want to achieve, you need to quantify your goal. 

Quantifying will help you measure progress so you can determine how far you’ve got to go before achieving the goal.

Improving the annual employee retention rate isn’t a measurable goal. If your retention rate improves by 0.1%, that’s still an improvement. Does that mean you’ve accomplished your goal and you can move on to other goals?

Making your goal measurable by saying that you’re aiming for an improvement of X% or some other metric helps you track your progress.

In our example, you want to achieve an annual employee retention rate of 60% (currently 55%). After Q1, you check in and the annual employee retention rate is 58.5%, you know you’re halfway there, but you still need to keep working towards it.

3. Achievable

Your goals should be realistic. You’ll likely want to encourage your team to push their limits, but setting realistic, attainable goals is critical to their morale.

For instance, if you choose to achieve an annual employee retention rate of 75%, you must ask yourself if a 20% improvement within two quarters is a reasonably achievable goal.

It’s also helpful to involve the person who’s to be held accountable for achieving the goals during the goal-setting phase itself. Ask them if the goal is achievable and try to understand the bottlenecks they might face along the way. 

If the HR team says a 20% improvement isn’t realistic to achieve within two quarters, work with them to determine what would be a more realistic number to achieve within two quarters.

4. Relevant

Zoom out for a moment. 

If you’re setting a goal to improve your employee retention, how does it help your company achieve its business goals? Does the company have other goals that need to be prioritized right now?

Make sure the goals you set for your team are relevant for the current state of your company, and that they will help achieve the company’s overall objectives. 

Referring to our example, improving the annual employee retention rates can reduce costs incurred towards talent scouting, onboarding, and training. Its impact can show up in the company’s bottom line and, as optimizing profits is certainly a core objective for businesses, it’s a relevant goal.

5. Time-Bound

If you don’t give yourself a target date to achieve a goal, you’ll significantly reduce the chances of achieving it. You might get stuck in a state where you keep pushing it back but never really start working on it.

Setting a target date helps you track the progress of your goals and understand how the strategy is performing over time. This will allow you to optimize your strategy if needed and allow you a chance to get back on track.

In our example, the HR team’s goal is to improve the annual employee retention rate by 5%. But when does the team need to achieve this goal by—a year, two years, or five years? 

When you add a target date, i.e., by the end of Q2 of 2022, you give your team a sense of urgency, making them more likely to achieve the goal.

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Examples of SMART goals

You can convert any goal into a SMART goal. Here are three examples of regular goals turned into SMART goals.

  1. I want to diversify my product portfolio: I want to diversify my product portfolio with three new products by the end of H1 of 2024 by setting up an R&D team that will work on product design.
  2. Provide more training to the HR team: I want to increase the number of weekly training hours for the HR team from 3 hours to 5 hours by the end of the current quarter by automating a portion of the HR processes, which will free up some of the team’s time.
  1. Improve the employee experience: Gather feedback from team members to discover methods to improve their experience at the organization and use the findings to increase out employee net promoter score from 55-65 within the next year.
  2. Benchmark salaries to inform our compensation strategy. Benchmark all our salary bands against our competitors by the end of Q2 to ascertain whether we’re competitive in the market.

Set Yourself Up for Success With SMART Goals

Writing SMART goals doesn’t take a lot of time. You simply need to make sure that you write a goal that checks all the SMART criteria by being specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

Now that you know how to write goals using the SMART goals, you can be more proactive about helping the company achieve its objectives or be more focused with your personal goals and professional development.

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By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.