How to write SMART goals and objectives

You sit down with your boss for a scheduled meeting and she begins with…

“Look it’s that time of year again. I don’t know why the company makes us do this. You know what you have to do and I know what I have to do. But we have to get on with it otherwise I’ll get harassed by HR for weeks. So here’s your objectives for the next year.”

That start has got you motivated in the same way a three toed sloth gets motivated to do a few laps of the forest. It’s the opposite, demotivating!

You may not have to imagine this scenario, something similar has possibly happened to you in a past job. A lot of people have experienced something like this.

You reluctantly sit down and start to read through the first objective, “Provide good service to all customers”. You agree with this statement, but immediately start to think “but I do that now”. This is the sort of thing that leaves the performance management process stalled at the starting gate.

So how do we solve this?

Hitchhiker’s Guide

In this article we’ll show you how to write objectives. The sort that motivate. The terms “goals” and “objectives” will be used interchangeably.

Fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy know that the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything is 42.

The answer to our problems in this case is equally simple. But unlike the ambiguity of the answer “42”, it‘s all about making sure there is nothing ambiguous about what you want the end result to look like.

The answer to life, the universe and how to write objectives that get results is SMART. One of those great memory aids to use so when writing goals you can think “are these SMART?”.

Let’s take a look behind the acronym.

SMART goals
SMART acronym

Specific

You need to be specific. Why? Because your people are going to do what you ask them to do. So you need to be specific about the end result. Use action words like “to increase”, “to establish”, “to reduce” and “to create”.

You can also use “specific” to remind yourself that objectives need to relate back to a specific organisational goal.

Measurable

Imagine you are playing a game and it doesn’t show a score or progress indication as you go along. You wouldn’t play it – there’s no motivation!

You want something that will allow the person to gauge how well they are progressing toward achieving the objective. You don’t want an objective that is vague. This leaves room for misinterpretation and that will end in disgruntled people. So tell the person how you are going to measure the achievement. Then you both know when it hasn’t been achieved, when it’s been met and when it’s been exceeded.

For example, ‘100%’, ‘a $ figure’, by 5, etc. A number allows people to see if they have achieved the goal.

It’s also a good idea to record the source of the measurement. For example, the profit & loss report for retail division, client survey, sales reports.

SMART acronym

Attainable

Stretch goals can be motivating, but if they are too much of a stretch they won’t be achieved. Goals need to stretch a person to give them a sense of achievement, but they also need to be attainable.

If a goal is too hard, a person will either give up before they start or put in the effort only to end in disappointment. If a goal is too easy, it won’t provide a sense of achievement. A good goal needs to have just the right level of stretch.

SMART acronym

Relevant

Is the objective within something the person will have control or influence over? The answer to this question must be “yes” if you want the objective to be achieved. Setting an objective for a person that involves something they can’t control or influence is unfair and will lead to disgruntlement.

It’s also a great idea to think of “R” as relate. Relate the objective back to the team and company goals. Being part of a team effort is much more motivating than just having an objective.

SMART acronym

Time-bound

SMART goals have a time frame in which they need to be achieved. If you set a goal without a target date it is unlikely to be achieved. Along with a target date it’s also a good idea to define milestones. This helps you gauge progress and identify problems early enough for them to be solved.

Writing SMART goals

Let’s revisit the “Provide good service to all customers” objective from the beginning of this article. This is the sort of objective that leads to what we call “the dreaded annual appraisal”. We’re going to show you how to turn that vague statement into something that’ll make a real difference.

The first thing to recognize in “Provide good service to all customers” is that it’s an action, not an objective. Objectives should be outcomes or accomplishments, not the actions that lead to them. So what’s the outcome you’re really looking for when you say “provide good service to all customers”?

You would be looking to have satisfied customers. And ultimately you would be looking to retain customers. That’s the real thing you want to occur.

So how do we re-write it as a SMART objective. First look at the organisation’s goals. Imagine the organisation has a goal to increase its customer base by 25% over the next 3 years. We want our objective closely aligned with that goal. And the easiest way to do that would be to make the objective…

Increase the customer base by 10% this financial year

But that objective only works for people who have a reasonable amount of control over whether the customer base is increased. What about a customer service representative working on the front line. They may be dealing with existing clients and have little direct influence over new customers. In this case, you want to set an objective like this…

Increase your Customer Service Satisfaction Score to 90% this financial year

This is very much aligned to the organisations goal to increase its customer base because to do so, it will also need to retain its existing customers. And to retain its existing customers, they will need to be satisfied.

We’ll talk about how to measure this sort of objective shortly.

It’s important that people know how their objectives align with the organisations goals. So in the case of our customer service representative, they need to know that increasing client satisfaction is aligned to the organisation’s goal to increase its customer base.

People want to be a part of something. They want something more than an uninspiring job description. They want to be involved in a real mission. Letting them know how they contribute to the organisations goals helps achieve this.

So which objective do you think would get better results?

The old style

Provide good service to all customers

or the SMART

Increase your Customer Service Satisfaction Score to 90% this financial year

We’ve shown you how to write SMART goals and objectives. If you are setting a goal for yourself, skip the next section and go straight to the sample goals and objectives. If you are writing goals for team members as part of an appraisal or performance management process, read on.

SMART goals image

I wanna vanquish evil in a single afternoon!

SMART goals

Ummm… increase distance from ground by 1 metre – before Mum calls me in for dinner.

Advanced SMART goal tips and techniques

So far we’ve looked at the definition of a SMART objective. We’ve also turned the problem producing “provide good service to all customers” into a new SMART objective.

There’s three things left to do that’ll make the new objective work really well for you. On top of this they’ll help remove headaches come review time. They are…

  • Measurement
  • Performance standards, and
  • Actions

Let’s see what this looks like with our new objective (increase your Customer Service Satisfaction Score to 90% this financial year). We can break this objective down further:

Objective:

Increase customer satisfaction

Measurement:

A percentage score based on a Customer Service Satisfaction survey (note: this could also be measured by a mystery shopper program)

Performance standard:

87 – 89% = partially met
90 – 95% = met
96 – 98% = exceeded
over 98% = outstanding

The measurement makes it clear how the end result will be measured. It should describe both the source of the data and how it will be measured. The Performance standards explain a number of different levels of achievement.

To keep things simple, we could have left the objective as “increase your Customer Service Satisfaction Score to 90%”. But by explaining how it will be measured and providing a number of different potential levels of attainment, we have made our job throughout the year and at end of year review time much easier. Why is that? Well, there’s no room for disagreement or misinterpretation. And we can also measure and discuss progress throughout the year.

When something is achievable and you know how you’re traveling, you’re much more motivated to reach the end goal.

Things aren’t always so easy to measure

What could you do if you didn’t have a customer satisfaction survey or a mystery shopper program? You could look at things like:

  • Average time taken to respond to customer requests
  • Number of enquiries that need to be escalated
  • Complaints

Input, autonomy and actions

Research has shown that people are more engaged and motivated when they have input into their own goals. For some companies and roles this may mean input into the goal itself. For others this may mean autonomy over how the goal will be achieved. But for people with less experience this may not always be practical. In this case you may need to provide an outline of the key steps needed to achieve the goal. This still allows some degree of autonomy while providing the direction a less experienced person needs.

Some things to avoid

  • Objectives

    must be achievable

  • Avoid

    using terms that don’t allow a margin for error like always, every, each, all, never. An objective can be very challenging, but it should be possible for someone to achieve outstanding performance.

  • Don’t

    describe objectives as things you don’t want done, focus on what you want achieved instead. There can’t be an expectation for a person to be perfect.

SMART Goal Examples

We hope you’ve got something from this article on writing objectives that produce results. The next step is to review our sample goals and objectives. These examples will help reinforce what you’ve learnt in this article.

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