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Goal setting can often be overwhelming or vague and tying individual goals to company goals isn't as easy as drawing a straight line.

The SMART criteria provide a clear, structured approach to goal planning. When coupled with technology solutions like an objectives and key results (OKR)_software, leaders and employees can begin working together to connect the dots.

Key takeaways

  • The SMART framework transforms vague objectives into clear, actionable goals, enhancing clarity and effectiveness.
  • Goals should be ambitious yet achievable. It’s important to set targets that stretch capabilities but remain within realistic bounds.
  • Ensuring that goals are relevant to the company's overall objectives and setting a specific timeframe for achievement are crucial. This alignment creates a sense of urgency and helps maintain focus on the company's broader strategic aims.

What are SMART goals?

The SMART acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound goals. Let's take a closer look at each of these.

  • Specific - Emphasizes the importance of a goal being clear and precise. A specific goal clearly defines what is to be achieved and answers the questions: What needs to be accomplished? Who is involved? Where will it take place?
  • Measurable - A measurable goal is one that can be quantified or assessed, allowing you to track progress and know when the goal has been achieved. It answers questions like: How much? How many? Which metrics should we use?
  • Achievable - Goals should be realistic and attainable. This doesn’t mean they can’t be challenging. An achievable goal takes into account the current constraints such as resources, time and skills.
  • Relevant - Ensures that the goal matters to you and aligns with other relevant objectives. It's about the goal making sense within the broader context of your job or life aspirations. A relevant goal often answers why the objective is important and why now is the right time to pursue it.
  • Time-bound - This creates a sense of urgency and prompts action. A time-bound goal answers the question: When does this need to be completed? It provides a clear timeframe which makes the goal more tangible.

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 bolded text represents areas that speak to the framework:

The HR manager should improve the company’s annual employee retention rate from 55% to 60% by the end of Q2 of 2024 by using the information from exit 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. You then use each component of the framework to convert it into a SMART goal.

1. Specific Goals

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.

Let's look at what we're trying to address with SMART goals through the lens of our example:

  • Is the goal clearly defined and specific? In this case, the goal has zeroed in on retention rate as the KPI we want to influence and has provided a definition of success, so it is both clearly defined and specific.
  • Does it detail what needs to be accomplished? Increase the annual employee retention rate from 55% to 60%.
  • Who is the person accountable for the goal? In this case, an ideal person to be held accountable for the goal can be the HR manager.
  • What is your action plan? Use the exit surveys to understand why employees are leaving the company and address those issues.

2. Measurable goals

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

In making goals measurable, we aim to track progress and define when the goal is achieved.

In our example, you want to improve the annual employee retention rate. We need to answer these questions:

  • Can progress toward the goal be identified or measured? Identify the change you want to see, how it will be tracked and what metrics will tell the story?
  • What are the clear milestones or indicators of progress? Because we know the baseline is 55% and our goal is 60% milestones and indicators are easy to decipher for anyone looking at the data.
  • How will I know the goal is accomplished? By setting a target, you make the goal more tangible and help the person pursuing it understand when they can move on to other goals.

3. Achievable goals

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

It’s helpful to involve the person who’s to be held accountable for achieving the goals during the goal-setting phase itself. Try to understand the bottlenecks they might face along the way and work with them to make the goal achievable.

In our example, what makes the goal achievable is the resources available to the person to take an action on, in this case data from exit surveys.

Let's consider a few factors that would be addressed in this example by assessing achievability:

  • Do you have the necessary skills and abilities, or can you acquire them? It's unrealistic to ask someone to achieve a goal they don't have the skills to pursue. Find out how high of a hurdle this is to clear before setting goals.
  • What are the constraints? Engage your team to find out what might stand in their way as they do this. For example, is the data from the exit surveys unreliable, irrelevant or unclear?
  • Is the goal realistic given the constraints? If the team is using faulty data, there decision making process will be ill informed. In this case, the goal cannot be completed until the necessary structures are put in place to provide relevant data.

4. Relevant goals

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?

This aspect of SMART goal setting will help you make sure the goals you set are relevant for the current state of your company, and that they will help achieve the company’s overall objectives. 

Referring to our example, let's look at the goal's relevance by asking two questions:

  • Does the goal align with objectives or values of the business? Improving the annual employee retention rates can reduce costs incurred towards talent scouting, onboarding and training.
  • Why is now the right time to pursue it? The impact will show up in the company’s bottom line and, as optimizing profits is certainly a core objective for businesses, this will always be a relevant goal.
  • Does this goal positively impact your personal or professional growth? People are inherently invested in their own growth. If the goal can tie to their growth while supporting the business, you're more likely to get the level of commitment you're looking for.

5. Time-bound goals

If you don’t give yourself a target date to achieve a goal, you’ll significantly reduce the chances of achieving it.

Setting deadlines 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 give 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%. We then have to answer the most important time-bound question.

  • When does this need to be completed? By clarifying that it needs to happen by the end of Q2 of 2024, you give your team a sense of urgency, making them more likely to achieve the goal.
  • Is the timeline realistic and feasible? Looking at past performance, the bandwidth of your team and relevant trends in your data, you can accurately assess whether the goal can be achieved in the timeframe created and create milestones for what success looks like.
  • Are there interim deadlines for milestones along the way? Goals are rarely achieved by going from point A to point B. Creating milestones along the way allows the individual or team a chance come up for air, assess what's working and apply what they've learned so far in fine tuning their strategies.
Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

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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.

Determining the Scope of a SMART Goal

Setting a SMART goal is not just about outlining what you want to achieve, it's also about understanding the broader objective it serves.

Here are some simple steps to identify the broader objective of your SMART goals:

  1. Align with mission, vision or long-term objectives: Start by asking how the goal fits into the bigger picture of the organization's purpose. Understanding this alignment ensures that your goal contributes to broader strategic priorities.
  2. Assess impact on key areas: Consider the potential impact of achieving your goal. Will it affect productivity, customer satisfaction, employee engagement or profitability? This helps in understanding the goal's significance in a wider context.
  3. Identify stakeholders: Identify who will be affected by or involved in achieving the goal. Understanding the stakeholders allows you to gauge the goal's reach and significance within the organization.
  4. Break down into sub-goals: Sometimes, a broad goal can be overwhelming. Break it down into smaller, more manageable sub-goals. This step helps in ensuring that each sub-goal contributes effectively to the main objective.
  5. Evaluate resources and constraints: Consider the resources required and constraints that might impact the goal. This includes budget, time, personnel and technology. Understanding these factors helps in realistically setting the scope of the goal.
  6. Review and adjust: Finally, be open to reviewing and adjusting the scope of the goal as needed. Sometimes, initial assumptions change, or new information comes to light, necessitating a reevaluation of the goal's scope.

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.