SMART Objectives

Over at Crossderry, Paul talks about the challenges of choosing SMART objectives for performance evaluations. As he points out, coming up with good objectives isn’t easy and, all too often, managers and employees settle for ones that are innocuous and toothless. I wish the situation were otherwise but in most companies there’s no compelling reasons for either of them to do the hard work.

While it didn’t occur to me the first time I read his post, I later noticed something unexpected with Paul’s definition of SMART:

Specific: Objectives should clearly describe the desired outcomes – focusing on results, not activities.
Measurable: Objectives should be measurable in either a qualitative or quantitative way.
Attainable: Objectives should be challenging, but attainable.
Relevant: Objectives should be relevant to support the team and company objectives.
Time Bound: Objectives should include relevant, realistic deliverable dates.

The concept of SMART objectives was coined by Peter Drucker in “The Practice of Management” back in 1954.  I don’t have a copy handy but I’ve always thought that the ‘R’ stood for Results-oriented, not Relevant. As in, an objective should describe an outcome that you’re trying to achieve rather than activities along the way.  Or, focus on impact not output.

Checking various on-line sources didn’t really clear up anything for me and in fact added a new option: Realistic.  For my taste Realistic is too close to Attainable and thus doesn’t add enough value.  To resolve this overlap, we could change Attainable to Agreed-upon; agreement is especially important in organizations (like public sector or unions) that need explicit stakeholder buy-in.

All of this brings us back to the original point: regardless of the acronym, if we don’t spend the effort to create smart objectives and make sure that the appropriate people are aligned around these objectives, performance evaluations are largely empty exercises.

17 Responses to SMART Objectives

  1. crossderry January 26, 2008 at 11:48 am #

    Hi Jonathan,
    I had the same initial reaction, I googled “SMART” because something didn’t look right. FYI, these are cribbed from a global SW company we know well…

    I like “Agreed-Upon” as a concept, but I’m not sure it is an attribute of an objective per se. It is a required attibute of an operative objective, however…almost like a switch or check-box that activates it.

    Coincidentially, my experience is that ability to achieve an objective seems to be the prime driver of disagreement. No doubt that “Agreed Upon” and “Achieveable” are at the center of tangible alignment.


  2. Bob January 27, 2008 at 9:36 pm #

    I’ve seen SMART attributed to Drucker before, but hell if I can find where he actually says it. I have “The Practice of Management” and can’t find anything about SMART. In fact given what Drucker *does* say about objectives, something like SMART seems rather simplistic.

    I think that all the acronyms, e.g. Aggressive, Attainable, Appropriate, Relevant, Resourced, Trackable, etc, can be whatever your organization wants, because they are just checkmarks to help you make sure the objective/target is Specific and Measurable. It’s Measurement that Drucker cared about in 1954, and he goes to great pains to talk about management by measurement vs. control.

    Drucker also went beyond the isolated objective, discussing the difficulties of balance or prioritization, something SMART does not convey.

    I don’t claim Drucker didn’t coin SMART! It’s possible I missed it, or that he coined it in a different paper. But I would love to see the specific reference.

  3. Jonathan January 29, 2008 at 1:57 pm #

    Hmm, I may be guilty of following the crowd here. I’ll check my Drucker papers when I get back to the office. Maybe he wasn’t the originator of SMART…

  4. Gross Transactions February 2, 2008 at 8:29 am #

    I prefer ‘Risk-Managed’ for R as it seems to capture the essence of what Realistic is all about.

    Never heard the Relevant one, which I suppose goes to show how embedded the whole SMART thing has become in so many working cultures.

    Incidentally, I honestly feel that I ‘got’ SMART the first time I saw it – it does seem so immediately obvious and hindsight sets in a few milliseconds after somebody explains it for the first time.

    However, most of the people that I’ve ever worked with have merely paid lip-service as if it’s some kind of emperor’s new clothes thing.

    My lip-service is paid to SWOT – anyone got any suggestions as to why this is simple yet powerful as opposed to trite and simplistic?

  5. Macolm Ryder February 2, 2008 at 7:15 pm #

    Specific Measurable Actionable Relevant Timely… I also don’t know the origin but I’m pretty sure about what the acronym stands for.

    When it comes to evaluating “performance”, what always comes to my mind is the short chain of dependencies that is involved:
    – define what difference would be important;
    – define what means and modes generate the difference;
    – define what actions originate and realize the means and modes.

    A difference that has importance is a “value”. Valuable things can lead to gain. Unfortunately, the common attitude of “won-loss” or “net” easily distracts most staff most of the time from the critical subtlety and significance of actual “performance” measurement of people. People are contributors and their “performance” is fundamentally about the importance of the type of contribution that they make, not fundamentally about the aftereffects of the contribution. (Aftereffects are “why” we evaluate performance, not “how”.)

    Example: take a poor coach with great talent on the roster, and even if they win the game it is pretty difficult to actually measure the players’ performances. Take a great coach with inexperienced talent on the roster, and even if they lose the game it is very easy to measure the players’ performances. (Why? Because regardless of outcomes, roles were explicit in the good coach’s design of the effort, and not in the poor coach’s.)

    On another level, a workgroup’s execution outcome measured against an outcome target is a common interpretation of “performance”. This is usually something worth tracking by “investors”, for example, but the problem is that it can’t be used very well as a standard technique by which to manage individual persons.

  6. Sarah February 7, 2008 at 11:18 pm #

    Royal Philips has been utilizing SMART metrics for many years. It is the HR policy for setting goals and objectives.

  7. Jonathan February 8, 2008 at 6:40 pm #

    Thanks Sarah. And what does Royal Philips say that SMART stands for?

  8. Timo Elliott February 13, 2008 at 10:23 pm #

    Out of interest, what’s your take on PRISM: Personal, Realistic, Interesting, Specific and Measurable?

  9. Jonathan January 14, 2009 at 6:57 pm #

    Timo, never replied to this thread. See this older post on a comment on PRISM: In short, Personal seems too disconnected to me.

  10. Mike Chitty January 27, 2009 at 12:18 am #

    For me the A has to ‘actionable’. I ask managers to develop objectives that are ‘dripping with possibilities for action’ ie we can see some of the things that might get us to the objective straight away. It helps build momentum.

  11. Brett April 15, 2009 at 9:26 pm #

    I like the use of “Agreed Upon”, which I have used with my staff, as an objective as Achievable or Actionable dictated to by Management is Subjective therefore not a SMART Objective. Besides you cannot have something whcih is Achieveable and not Realistic or visa versa. SMART emplyees will pick this up every time.

  12. Dr. Chpke V. G . October 26, 2012 at 3:43 am #

    It is more appropriate to use agreed upon or accepted objective to achieve


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