What’s Missing from SMART Criteria Goals?

The subject of goal setting is as old as the hills! Nonetheless, goal setting and goal achievement continues to be elusive – if you do not consciously and proactively keep after it.

This post explores a well-known approach to goal setting and achievement – SMART criteria goals – and what you can do to squeeze more success from your efforts.

What Are SMART – and SMARTER – Goals?

SMART criteria goalsThere are numerous acronyms for SMART goals, and additionally numerous meanings. Let’s focus on keeping it simple to remember and take action. I like the addition of the ‘ER’ to SMART, resulting in the following:

  • Specific – If it is vague, it probably will not be measurable, achievable, realistic, or time-bound. “Deliver version 2 of the control software” is specific enough if you can do the next few steps below.
  • Measurable – You must be able to quantify success, either by redefining, or breaking into measurable steps. If “version 2 of the software” has 45 specific requirements, you can measure your progress incrementally.
  • Achievable – You need to be able to bound the goal so that people can believe that it is within reach. If it just cannot be believed, break it down further into something that seems more achievable.
  • Realistic (or Risky) – This closely relates to ‘Achievable’…but what is the probability of success? People and teams perform better with ‘stretch’ goals. Some find that a 70% success rate is a good target. What works in your culture?
  • Time-bound – Set a clear time frame for the achievement of the goal. Achievement of a goal outside a time frame might be as bad as not achieving the goal at all! Think in terms of must-have and want-to-have, and set a stretch time frame.
  • Exciting – Is this goal something that you and your team can get excited about? Everyone likes to strive for something. Make it visual and emotional, make it so everyone can touch it and feel it. Talk about it and generate excitement.
  • Relevant – A goal must be relevant to be exciting – and to be worth working toward. What ultimate objectives – ie. strategic – does the goal relate to? What is the ultimate purpose for the goal, and is it worthy?

Whether the goals are personal or team and business related, they need to pass the test of being SMART – or ideally SMARTER.

What Are Goals vs Objectives?

goals vs objectivesGoals represent the end result. They are where we want to go.

Objectives are shorter in duration and are intermediate in nature and supportive to achieving the goals. For example, you may need to achieve several objectives on the way to achieving your goals.

I do not want to get caught up in semantics here. This is more about clarity of the concept, and defining goals and objectives at least helps.

Using an old military example, here’s how the goals and objectives might relate:


  • Take control of the town

Supporting objectives:

  • Capture the hill
  • Control the bridge
  • Cross the river

Another parallel in project management is the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). Task groupings can be like goals, since they are higher level. Individual tasks which support the goals are intermediate objectives – like something that can be accomplished in a sprint.

How Can You Increase Your Goal Achievement?

increase goal achievementHere are ten (10) ways that you can improve your chances of achieving goals. They extend or fill in what is missing from SMART criteria goals.

  1. Pick just a few – Keep to a small number of goals at a time. Focusing on 3 to 5 is about right.
  2. Write them down – It is well-known that you drastically increase your chances when your goals are written. But don’t just stow them away; refer to them often!
  3. Set regular check points – Schedule some time, especially with the team, to reviews status on goals.
  4. Adjust goals if warranted – Don’t just keep moving in the same direction if things have changed. Things will change. Make adjustments if your targets have shifted.
  5. Tie back to strategy – Keep your longer range, macro drivers in mind. Make sure you are aligned at the start, and remain aligned throughout.
  6. Redefine stretch goals – Is a 70% success rate the magic number? Ease off a bit if success seems out of reach, and tighten up if things seem too easy. Make it stimulating and motivating.
  7. Share goals selectively – Sharing your goals with some people may be highly motivating, but with others could be downright demotivating. It can be helpful to share – but choose wisely!
  8. Celebrate wins – It is highly motivating to celebrate. In fact, make it a habit to celebrate goal achievements with your team and see how much more you can achieve together.
  9. Acknowledge dependencies – When achievement is dependent of people or things outside your control, identify risks and a mitigation plan. Recognize what you can control and do it. Monitor what you cannot, and adjust as necessary.
  10. Use set time frames – Setting time blocks is very helpful. That’s what agile sprints and iterations do, and that’s what quarterly do. Keep the time frames relatively short for using SMART criteria goals.

The idea behind all of this is to try it – take action and see what happens. You can make goal setting and goal achievement a habit.


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Linking Goals, Objectives, Strategy, and Projects

Objectives and Key Results (OKR’s) are closely related to this whole topic, and they don’t even differentiate between goals and objectives. OKR’s apply some of the best practices of SMARTER goals. OKR’s are effective in any kind of organization, but are especially helpful in technology-driven organizations, where all of these things – goals, objectives, strategy, and projects – need to be flexible and are done in an agile fashion.

Strategy typically comes first – but things can be fluid. Goals and objectives – used pretty much interchangeably here – are largely driven by strategy, but can also be driven from bottom up. Everyone – departments, teams, even individuals – picks 3 to 5 goals coordinated with adjacent groups, and for short durations such as a quarter. Everyone is kept in sync.

The ‘KR’ in OKR stands for Key Results, which means the goals are measurable. But some real fuel is added with a ‘continuous performance review’ process, which at its core involves the real kicker comes in with an extra bit of motivation Conversations, Feedback, and Recognition. Many firms – this largely started with Google – use this combination of OKR’s and CFR’s as a powerful blend for achievement.

Learn a lot more about OKR’s, with lots of good implementation stories, in “Measure What Matters” by John Doerr, pictured above.

Where do projects fit? Projects are the result of this continuous process of refining goals and objectives at all levels. When you need to make something happen, start by creating a project! From there, project management implementation takes over.

Turn Food for Thought Into Ideas for Action

Setting SMART goals is an effective technique for achieving what you want in work and life. There are many related frameworks – this post outlines the SMARTER approach, which is very similar. More sophisticated approaches – true implementation frameworks – include OKR’s and CFR’s which can be done on a localized or organization-side basis.

The key to success is to take action. If you are feeling stuck in any way, set some SMART criteria goals to set things in motion for yourself and your team. You can build on that foundation as you make progress.


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