Are Your Goals Measure-Worthy If They Are SMART?

by Stacey Barr

Despite frameworks about what makes a goal worth measuring, like SMART, many of our goals are still not meaningfully measurable. Try these 5 questions instead…

Six different interpretations of the SMART framework. Various artists:

George T. Doran first published his SMART framework in 1981, “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objective”, in Management Review. His purpose was to provide guidance for how to write a meaningful objective, or statement of results to be achieved. At least, that’s the intention that sits behind his framework, as he defined below:

  • Specific: target a specific area for improvement
  • Measurable: quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress
  • Assignable: specify who will do it
  • Realistic: state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources
  • Time-related: specify when the result(s) can be achieved

SMART is good (for goals), but not enough.

SMART was a very useful checklist to write better goals, and no wonder it became so popular. But there are three limitations that have evolved from SMART’s popularity. And these limitations have left many goals not worthy of measurement:

  1. SMART has been reinterpreted into many different definitions of the acronym.
  2. SMART is often mistaken as a KPI framework when it was specifically designed for goals.
  3. SMART misses a few other important criteria that makes a goal measure-worthy.

To write goals or objectives that are measure-worthy, I prefer to use these five questions…

1. Result-oriented: Is the goal about making a difference in our world, or just about doing stuff?

SMART doesn’t explicitly ask that our goal be result-oriented. And a framework for goals really should, because we still have the problem that most of what we measure is action: how much stuff did we do and how much of it did we do on time? If we keep on measuring activity, our attention will stay focused on doing activity.

But isn’t it that we really want to make our world (or our little part of it) better in some way? That’s why we do the activity, but the activity is not the end in itself. So make sure your goals are result-oriented, not action-oriented, so you can then monitor the degree to which you’re making that difference in the world you set out to make.

2. Unambiguous: Does everyone share the same understanding of this goal?

The S in SMART stands for specific, but that means more than ‘not vague’. For whatever reasons, we use very weaselly language when we write goals, even when we’re trying to be specific. And we end up with ‘management speak’ that can’t be measured. In my experience, the vast majority of goals are so vague that seven different people can easily have thirteen different interpretations of the same goal. Not good.

To make your goal unambiguous, use words better. Even better, aim for language a 10-year-old could understand. Not to ‘dumb down’ the goal, but to make it say very clearly exactly what it is about.

3. Observable: Can we easily recognise when the goal is happening, through observation?

Almost every goal framework, SMART included, fail to flag how important it is that we are able to recognise if or how much our goal is becoming reality. If you have no way of describing what would convince you the goal was reached, you don’t have a goal. What’s the point of aiming for something you can’t see or recognise or discern as different in some way from how things are now?

And you can’t measure something that you can’t observe. If you can’t observe it, then you can’t quantify it. If you can’t quantify it, you can’t know to what extent it’s happening. Use sensory language to describe your goal, so you can evidence it in the real world.

4. Important: Does this goal matter more than all the things we’re not going to measure?

If we’re going to measure something, then it really ought to be something we should improve; something we absolutely cannot leave as it is. We don’t have enough time to make all our goals come true at once. And we can’t measure everything; it’s distracting to measure just because it’s easy to. And it’s wasteful to measure something if we really don’t need to take any action on it.

Be ruthless, and only measure goals that are important. Important can mean that you want or need to improve them, now. Or it can mean results that might not need to be improved, but you’d need to urgently remedy if they took a turn in the wrong direction.

5. Influenceable: Do we have enough influence and resources to reach this goal?

More important and useful than the R in SMART (realistic), I prefer to think about how much the team can influence their goal. So few things (other than actions) are in any team’s complete control. There are policies, procedures, budgets, competing or conflicting priorities, competition for resources, and other constraints that limit the control any team has over a result.

But to make performance better, influence is often enough. How much influence we have will affect our target and timeframe for reaching a goal. The goals that matter most are often the goals we cannot have 100% control over. The rest are probably too trivial to measure.

Can you answer ‘yes’ to every question for every goal?

Making our goals measure-worthy isn’t just for the sake of better KPIs. It’s for the sake of real improvement. It’s to know that we all share the same understanding and sense of urgency to achieve goals we know matter most.

Ask these five questions of your own current strategic or operational goals. Do you get a confident ‘yes’ to every single question, for every single goal? If you get a ‘no’ for any of your goals, it means those goals are not yet measure-worthy. Know that it’s never too late to tweak or change a goal, to make it more than just SMART.

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