The Guide to SMART Goals You Wish You Had Read Earlier

Coach Mike
Post by Coach Mike
The Guide to SMART Goals You Wish You Had Read Earlier
What are SMART Goals?

Although it may seem that SMART Goals have been in the corporate lexicon forever, they are a comparatively new addition to the corporate strategy and personal productivity industries. In 1981, George Doran, a USA-based executive and consultant, penned an article titled, “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives.” The paper, often citied & referenced, formed the foundation for a new canon of goal-setting texts.

Declaring that in some organizations “goals” are short-term, while “objectives” are long-term, in others vice-versa, and in others the same(!), Doran seeks to shed light on the proper methodology for management to set goals for employees. He goes as far as to say this is the critical activity for management of a company, writing, “The establishment of objectives and the development of their respective action plans are the most critical steps in a company’s management process.”

For students, while you may have your own framework for setting goals & progress, these goals can be more likely achieved by making them SMART(ER) Goals. Here, we'll review:

  • What SMART(ER) Goals are.
  • How presenting our goals in a SMART(ER) way actually improves the likelihood that we will achieve them.
  • Some examples of each.
  • Some specific insights related to work at LearningLeaders.

S - Specific

Specificity is imperative to setting clear and actionable goals and largely encompasses the other areas of SMART goals. Not only do specific goals work better than simply saying, “Do your best,” but by being specific, you can generate an immense amount of other mission-critical information to help you in your goal- achieving behaviors. In order to be specific, you need to answer the following questions:

  • Why am I seeking to achieve this goal?
  • What is it exactly that I am hoping to achieve?
  • By when will I achieve this goal?
  • What risks or limitations might exist in seeking to achieve this goal?

Specificity can help you achieve your goal because the more specific you are in setting your goal, feedback is easier to measure and manage, plans are more likely to emerge from details, and specificity can also be more exciting than vague goals.

For example, "I want to have good math grades” is NOT a particularly specific, whereas, “By May 1st, one month before my math exam, I will have completed 5 test prep papers with a minimum score of 90% in each". The same is true for “I want to get in shape,” when compared to, “By the final day of May, I will be able to do 20 push-ups in under two minutes and run a 5k in 25 minutes or less.”

M - Measurable

Measurability indicates precisely when you know your goal has been reached. In order to decide whether or not you have achieved your goal and all of your hard work has been worth it, you will need evidence of success! One of the most challenging aspects of goal-setting can be to establish WHAT to measure. For example, if your overarching goal revolves around improved health, you could measure: 1) number of times exercised for more than 30 minutes per week, 2) number of days gone without sugary soft drinks, 3) number of salads consumed, or 4) your weight in kg and body fat in percentage. Or, you could even measure all four! In order to measure your success of achieving your goal, you need to answer the following question: How will I know when it is accomplished?
Measurability also can help you achieve your goal by breaking your overarching goal down into smaller goals or micro-goals. Breaking down a seemingly unattainable goal into smaller pieces is often a great first step to achieve a super challenging goal. As American soldier and military general Creighton Abrams is credited with saying, “When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.”

For example, “I want to become fluent in Chinese” is NOT particularly measurable, whereas, “I want to read 3000 characters with 98% accuracy” or “By the final day of the year, I want to have a 30 minute conversation about today’s news in which I can speak for five minutes without stopping,” are much more so. The same is true for, “I want to become a master of chess,” when compared to, “By January 2020, my international chess rating will be above 2100.”

‘Measurement’ has its own place on goal-setting charts. We agree with Peter Drucker, famous management theorist, when he said, “What gets measured gets managed.” If we take time to truly think about what the best unit of measurement is to reach our desired future outcome, it can make an incredible amount of difference. If we wish to emphasize certain behaviors, values, and actions, selecting the proper unit of measurement is an important lever we can pull. This not only maximizes the likelihood of achieving desired future outcomes but also the likelihood of achieving the best ones for your future!

A - Assignable (some say Attainable)

Assignability is a core feature of any goal because in order to achieve the goal we must be aware of who is responsible for its completion. Oftentimes when setting goals, the goal-setter will be responsible for the completion of the majority, if not all, of the key tasks that result in the goal’s completion. However, as teams grow and goals become more complex, establishing assignability or accountability for each step is imperative. Otherwise, a phenomenon known as the Tragedy of the Commons may occur, meaning, “if everyone owns something, no one owns it.”

This social phenomenon is commonly illustrated with the concept of climate change and global warming - since all of humanity may be collectively responsible for the preservation of planet earth, no single person or country acts in such a way that demonstrates that accountability. In order to ensure the goal is assignable, you need to answer the following question: Who is ultimately accountable for every step of the process?

Assignable goals will absolutely help you drive each goal to completion, because there should not be unclear responsibilities. ‘Owning’ a goal means that a certain person is responsible for delivering the goods, the results. At the end of the period during which the goal should have been achieved, a single person should be able to answer the question, “Was this goal accomplished? Why or why not?” According to a survey of Fortune 500 companies from Deloitte, a management consulting firm, over half of projects that were not completed on schedule stem from “communication challenges.” To reduce these issues, make each step of the process designed to accomplish the goal assignable.
For example, “We need to get that done,” is NOT an assignable goal, because the use of the royal “we” does not make it clear who precisely will take responsibility and accountability for ensuring this task or project will be driven to completion. Instead, “James, can you lead this project and ensure we all update our research progress by the end of the day on Friday?” turns the goal that was vaguely directed at the team to one person who can be held accountable to ensure the follow-ups are completed.

At LearningLeaders, we often refer to the assigned person or accountable party as the “DRI.” DRI stands for Directly Responsible Individual.

Establishing the DRI leaves no room for finger-pointing or confusion if the goals are met or not. Whoever is the DRI is the single person who is accountable for delivering a certain result. Period. DRIs know that for each project or initiative they are responsible for, they are able to leverage the resources of the team to accomplish their goals. Thus, DRI does NOT mean “Delivering Results Independently.” 

Unless the project is confidential in nature, which will be rare, working with other team members, outside partners, or advisors is always a good idea.

Although in the original version of Doran’s article he wrote A stands for ‘Assignable,’ in the common business and goal-setting lexicon, A has been shifted to stand for Attainable, or in some cases even, Actionable. Attainable can be seen as interchangeable with Realistic, which is introduced below.

R - Realistic (some say Relevant)

Realistic provides a quick sanity check whether or not our goal makes sense in the first place. It is rather pointless to set a goal that you know you cannot achieve, no matter how hard you work. If you do not have the time, effort, talent, or resources to achieve your set goal, then this step of the goal-setting process should ground you and bring you back to earth. Shooting for the stars is superb in principle, though knowing which stars are in our galaxy would be important to know before you lift off. In order to ensure the goal is attainable, you need to answer the following question: Is this goal really worth it to me and within the realm of possibility? Or, Is the juice worth the squeeze?

Realistic goals can give us motivation and hope. Reminding ourselves that this goal is within our scope of talents and effort should bring us hope. Further, realistic or attainable goals don’t equate to ‘easy’ goals. Attainable goals means that with a measured approach and dedication, we are able to attain them, not that they are a given. If you want to set every single goal knowing that we could easily attain it without trying too hard, then you’re not challenging yourself and growing. Calibrating a proper level of attainability and realism will simultaneously provide us with ambition to accomplish something great and optimism that we can indeed fulfill our goals.

For example, “I want to be an NBA all-star” is NOT particularly realistic (for most of us, at least!), whereas, “I want to make over 30% of my baskets during my pick-up basketball games from now until September 1st," or “I want to shoot 50 free throws three days per week with 50% accuracy during each week of August,” are much more so. The same is true for, “I want to be recognized as the World’s Best Tea Drinker,” when compared to, “By the end of 2017, I will have six published articles in Tea-focused magazines across three continents."

Setting realistic goals means being honest with yourself about your natural talents and demonstrated performance. It is also about being honest with your team about their abilities as well - feedback is critical to establishing realistic goals and a dialogue between you and your team/peers will support setting realistic goals. You may believe that a certain goal is appropriate, while your partner may think some edits are necessary.

Although in the original version of Doran’s article he wrote R stands for ‘Realistic,’ in the common business and goal-setting lexicon, R has been shifted to stand for Relevant. Below is a brief explanation of ‘R as Relevant’

Relevance brings us back to the WHY of goal-setting. Is this goal something you actually want to achieve? Will it really make you happy to own five mansions in Beverly Hills, each with a filled five-car garage, and your picture in the NBA Hall of Fame? It very well may! Though it also may not. Being relevant in goal-setting brings us back to the reason why we may want to accomplish something in the first place - the desired future outcome. In order to ensure the goal is relevant, you need to answer the following question: Why does this goal matter to you and does this goal help you achieve your desired future outcome?

Relevance also helps us achieve our goals because it reinforces that our goals matter to us. Without having a personal connection or investment in our goals, the likelihood of achieving them drops precipitously. Further, without our goals being connected to a desired future outcome, it becomes more difficult to see an expected reward or benefit from accomplishing our goals. Without knowing that sit-ups helps us achieve our ultimate end of toning our ab muscles, we will not have an incentive to do them!

For example, “I want to watch every Bruce Lee movie ever made,” is NOT particularly relevant to "being able to do 20 push-ups in two minutes and run a 5k in 25 minutes or less by the final day of May.” Watching these Bruce Lee movies MAY provide inspiration or motivation, but they are certainly not necessary to accomplish the end goal (and probably in the end, not all that relevant)! Rather, “Completing 10 push- ups in a row followed by a 5k run in 30 minutes,” may be more relevant to accomplishing the desired future outcome.

T - Timely

Timely goals ensure that the ball keeps moving forward and that progress is made.
Time is our most valuable resource. Money, we can get back; time, we cannot. Time-bound goals increase the likelihood of completion because a sense of commitment is made, among other reasons. In order to ensure the goal is timely, you need to answer the following question: By when will I complete my goal?

Timely goals also bring about a sense of urgency, which helps us achieve our
goals. Imagine having the goal to “start eating healthier foods” (which we can probably already see is not a SMART goal...) In speaking with a friend, he asks you, awesome, “By when?” to which you reply, “Eh, starting next month.” The hand reaches into the bag of chips. Nervous laughter ensues. Many of us have seen a similar scenario play out - without a clear time frame of when action will happen, the likelihood of true behavioral change drops. Further, by creating a timely goal, plans are much easier to create, because backwards planning can begin with the date of completion.

For example, “I want to be able to do 20 push-ups in two minutes” is NOT timely, when compared to, “I want to be able to do 20 push-ups in two minutes by the end of October.” Not only will the second person be able to know unequivocally if the goal has been completed by a certain time, but now it is far easier to plan because the date has been set! “I want to read more,” again is NOT timely. Compare this to, “I want to read 12 books by the end of this year.”

So there you have it! Whether your goal is to become more healthy, earn better grades, win a debate tournament, or become an NBA star, start achieving it by making it SMART(ER)! Keep reading to learn more about the Leadership Theory.

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Coach Mike
Post by Coach Mike