SMART Goals and Objectives

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Developed by Sune Baldus



SMART Goals is a method for effective setting of goals and objectives, first presented by George T. Doran in 1981, addressing the lack of ability by managers to set goals and objectives. SMART was here an acronym for Specific Measurable Assignable Realistic and Time-related[1]. The object was to create a simple tool that every manager could remember at thereby make an effective way of setting goals.

SMART Goals has been widely accepted as an effective tool for goal setting, but the words behind the acronym is varying from author to author. The most common representation, according to Robert S. Rubin is Specific Measurable Attainable/Achievable Relevant and Time-bound, but there is several combinations of the words behind the acronym[2].

This article will cover the basics of the Goal setting theory developed by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham, present the Big Idea behind the SMART Goals method, relate it to practice for project management and give an example of the application of SMART Goals. Finally will its limitations be discussed. Many authors distinguishes between Goals and Objectives although it will not be the case for this article.

Goal setting

Goal Setting theory is a field within psychology, focusing on how goals and objectives can affect actions, and the application of goals. It addresses the relationships between goals and performance; difficulty of goals and probability of task success. Based on 35 years of empirical research, Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham describes in their article “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation” four mechanisms that makes goals affect performance. They are

  • (a) the Directive function, where goals directs attention to relevant activities
  • (b) the Energizing function, which means that higher goals leads to a greater effort
  • (c) goals affect persistence; a hard goal can prolong the effort, and
  • (d) it is stated that goals has an indirect effect on action since they leads to "arousal, discovery and/ use of task-relevant knowledge and strategies". [3]

In Goal setting literature, objectives are often mentioned. George T. Doran explains how, in some organisations, goals are short-term and objectives are long-term, and in other organisations, the opposite is the case, or even that they are synonyms. For that reason he finds no reason to discuss the difference except from on an executive level. He uses the term "objectives" throughout his article ”There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write Management's goals and objectives”. [1]

Les MacLeod is arguing for a distinction is needed between goals and objectives in his article "Making SMART goals smarter", where the goals is long-term and objectives are short-term. He distinguishes between goals and objectives by stating that goals are broad in scope, formulated in general terms, abstract and with a focus on an end-result whereas objectives are narrow in scope, specifically formulated, concrete and with a focus on the required steps towards an end-goal. His argument is that to make SMART Goals smarter, one should start refer to them as SMARTER Objectives. [4]

Big Idea

Objectives and goals enable an organization to focus on problems and give the company a sense of direction. This requires goals and objectives that are meaningful formulated. For that reason, George T. Doran introduced SMART Goals to help corporate officers, managers and supervisors write meaningful objectives. Doran addresses the issue that many managers are not capable of writing meaningful goals, even though they know the importance of setting goals. The difficulty of the goal-setting task, the time it requires, and the stress it results in, is the reason that the majority of the U.S. corporations do not have an effective process for planning and setting objectives. Doran's version of SMART-Goals, was a suggestion for coping with that issue, by making a simple mnemonic that every manager could remember. [1]

The Doran-version of SMART Goals

In 1981 George T. Doran presented SMART Goals for the first time in the article ”There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write Management's goals and objectives” in the academic newspaper Management Review[1]. It is described in very few words, but he points out that it is not suggested that every goal should cover the whole acronym, but it is worth to aim for as a guideline. The suggested acronym was:

  • Specific

Is to target a specific area of improvement.

  • Measurable

Is to choose a quantifiable indicator for progress.

  • Assignable

Is to assign an agent to the task.

  • Realistic

Is to state what is realistic to achieve with the assigned resources.

  • Time-related

Is to specify when the results can be achieved.

The popular version of SMART Goals

SMART goals has become a widely popular method for writing goals and objectives, but there is a certain ambiguity on what the actual acronym stands for. According to Robert S. Rubin, the most popular acronym is Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound [2]. This version is also the one that is used by MIT’s department for Human Resources [5], Les MacLeod [4] and in much litterature on goal setting in management.


A full description in concrete language of the desired outcome and describes the desired outcome. Who, where, what, why are the questions. What needs to be done, what the outcome are and why it is important. Since A does not stands for Assignable in the popular version, then it is in this criteria it is stated who is responsible for reaching the goal.


The goal needs to be measurable or quantifiable in some way. Also, you need to describe how you will know the objective is achieved. If the goal is of qualitative, like improving employee satisfaction for instance, then some sort of measurement tool like an employment satisfaction survey will be needed.


Latham and Locke found that the highest level of effort occurred when the task was moderately difficult, which corresponds with a goal that is stretch, yet achievable, is making sure that most effort will be put into the objective [3]. This, as a consequence, will also result in the highest possible outcome. The Attainability will be dependent on practicalities and available resources. This needs to be assessed in order to secure an attainable goal.

Attainable is synonymous with Achievable, and it covers the same criteria as Realistic would do - for that reason, coupling Attainable/Achievable with Realistic will not contribute further to meaningful goals.


The goal needs to be relevant for objectives for the performing group, as well as for the organization’s vision and mission. Relevance is to avoid doing the wrong things right or vice versa, but to make sure that the effort put into work that supports the overall goals or objectives for the organisation. The advantage of the higher effort that can be gained by setting a moderately difficult goal should not be wasted on work that is not fruitful.


What is the timeframe for achieving the goal? When will the desired end-result be achieved? In order to maintain a level of enthusiasm in the team for meeting the goal, a set-in-stone deadline will be needed. Without that, expectations to a team, or within the team, will be hard to manage, since there is no date of closure. Latham and Locke states that tight deadlines leads to a more rapid work pace than loose deadlines [6], Les MacLeod [4] and in much litterature on goal setting in management. , so for the sake of performance enhancement, this is a key criteria.

Managers needs to be aware of Student Syndrome where people only starts to apply themselves at the last possible moment before the deadline [7]. A way of dealing with that can be through Milestone dates which might be used on large projects.

Other editions

Not only the versions of SMART goals presented by George T. Doran or used by MIT, exists. Robert S. Rubin wrote in 2002 the article “Will the Real SMART Goals Please Stand Up” in the scientific newsletter The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, where he represents a myriad of different words and combination that can form the acronym SMART [2].

According to Rubin, the SMART acronym could cover not only the Doran or popular versions but also the following:

S Simple, specific with a stretch, sensible, significant
M Meaningful, motivating
A Acceptable, achievable, action-oriented, accountable, as-if-now, agreed, agreed-upon, actionable, assignable
R Realistic, reviewable, relative, rewarding, reasonable, results-oriented, relevant to a mission
T Timelines, time-frame, time-stamped, tangible, timely, time-based, time-specific, time-sensitive, timed, time-scaled, time-constrained, time-phased, time-limited, time-driven, time-related, time-line, timed and toward what you want, truthful

Further additions to the acronym

After SMART goals, other authors have expanded the acronym with "E" and "R", called SMARTER Goals. Also here there is ambiguity about the words behind the acronym. Graham Yemm suggests in his book "Essential guide to leading your team" that they represent Evaluated and Reviewed (or Rewarded). [8] In Les MacLeods article "Make SMART goals smarter" he suggest the expansion to be Engaging and Rewarding[4].

Evaluated or Engaging

Evaluated is here referring to the leader that will evaluate the team's and individuals performance and progress, and give feedback upon that. As a project will move closer to the set deadline, a leader's job is amongst others to support his team and keep them on track. This will especially be needed if the goals that are set, are moderately difficult. To evaluate the SMARTER Goals is therefore to keep the goals Relevant throughout the whole process.

Engaging is addressing motivation to achieve the goals. MacLeod states that an objective will need "ownership" if the goals not should be met with silent acceptance or resistance to some degree. It is lack of involvement that leads to lack of engagement, and his suggestion for how to cope with that issue and create ownership, is to involve the team's members in the writing of goals from the beginning. This criteria corresponds with the Project Management Institutes (PMI) statement that providing a reason for someone to act is motivation, and that teams are motivated by empowering them to participate in decision making and encouraging them to work independently. [9]

In 1968 Locke come out with the revolutionary theory that clear goals and feedback was motivating itself [10] kept in mind, the evaluation (feedback) that Yemm suggests will be engaging (motivating) to the team that MacLeod emphasises the importance of.

Reviewed or Rewarded/Rewarding

Reviewed/Rewarded is here referring to the relationship between the team leader and the individuals in the team. To keep up motivation in the team, the manager here can, by reviewing the work of the team or individuals, give a feedback and support, and on the same time show that he is paying attention and is involved in the work. According to PMI managers are responsible for proactively develop team skills and competencies for improving team satisfaction and motivation. [11] The rewarding of progress is here also way of showing the team and its individuals that there is paid attention to their work. These rewards can be external (salary and benefits) or internal (intellectual challenging or a sense of accomplishment).


SMART Goals has gained a popularity as a tool for setting goals, and it is used both in modern psychology (Industrial-organisational psychology and personal development) as well as in different fields within management science[10][8]. For a project manager, managing people in a team is a key task [12], and here motivation has a larger effect on productivity than any other managerial aspect of the project [13]. Also Locke's revolutionary theory from 1968 shows exactly that appropriate feedback and clear goals motivates employees. Working toward a goal is in itself a major source of motivation. [10] That is why SMART Goals and Objectives is a useful tool for a project manager in order to motivate the team.

An example of SMART Goals:

In a volunteer NGO, keeping in touch with members is crucial for the bare existence of the organization, since they are forming the NGO. The members needs to be satisfied with their membership and the organisation’s priorities/policies in order to stay enrolled.

A sample goal for a volunteer NGO could be:

Keep in touch with all members.

That goal is not SMART. First, it is not specific. To “keep in touch” could be the NGO members paying their annual membership fee, or when they are receiving the newsletter.

It is not measurable, since there is no clear indication for progress. Is the goal reached if the members pay their membership fee? And will it then be a failure if people are unsubscribing the NGO?

It is not assignable since it is not clear who is to do it. Is it the chairman, the head of secretariat, local groups, or some other group?

It is not realistic since there is no assigned resources to it. Also, reaching 100% of the members is quite a task, if it is a large NGO. People might change phone numbers or email-addresses.

It is not time-related. It does not state when the goal needs to be achieved.

The SMART goal could then be:

The Head of secretariat is responsible for that 95% of our members of the organization has received a phone call from, or participated in an email correspondence with, the secretariat (Head of secretariat, one of the volunteers or, if needed, a board member). The content of the communication should as a minimum be if the members still wants to be a part of our organization. This needs to be done every year, and the membership database should be updated along as the correspondences are conducted.

This is specific, since it states exactly what has to be done; Phone calls or emails with a clear purpose.

It is measurable, since there is a clear indicator for progress. The percentage of members contacted by secretariat is trackable for everyone with access to the membership database.

It is assignable, since it states who is responsible (Head of secretariat), and who is to perform the job (the secretariat).

It is realistic since there are resources assigned to the task – the secretariat itself. Also, the board members will assist in case of lack of resources.

It is time-related, since it is clearly stated that it has to be done every year.

Whether the goal is relevant or not, is a matter of the strategy for the organisation, but if their ambition is to hold on to their current members, this will work towards that. If the strategic focus is to get new members, then this goal will be off. First, it is relevant to question the need for contact with the members? To create a feeling of cohesion in the organization? Or to call them and check if they are actively supporting the organizations work? Even though it is stated that the content should be “if the member still wants to be a part of the organization”, it is not clear what the desired output should be. The member could say “no”, and take the opportunity to unsubscribe from the organization, during the phone call. Then the NGO might be bleeding members during these correspondences. It should also be clear for the organization that its members still want to be a part of the organization if they keep paying their membership fee.


Despite its wide popularity, SMART Goals is not an instant recipe for success. For using them in a project management context, a strategy must be agreed upon, to make sure the goals are relevant to the organisation’s vision and mission. If different departments of an organisation have different goals, they need to be aligned towards the common strategy, and not contradict each other.

Also, SMART Goals will rely on a strategy that is properly formulated, since the SMART Goals itself provided no guidance in determining whether the goal is wise[6]. For that reason, the SMART acronym is not stopping a company from doing the wrong things right. In the given example, the objective for the NGO is to be in touch with 95% of the members. That is fine, but it does not create significant value for the organization. A focus on member activity, recruitment of new members, maintaining partnerships and creating new alliances, visibility in public debate or fundraising could create much more value for the NGO – even though these goals might not be formulated in a SMART way.

The amount of alternative versions of SMART Goals is also an issue to be aware of, when it is used. The most popular representations for A (Attainable and Achievable) is similar to Dorans R for Realistic, so an attainable and realistic SMART goal will definately be met, but the goal might not be meaningful. Also, the focus on an attainable goal will naturally encourage people to set low goals[6].

In 1990 Locke and Latham formed five principles for improving the chances of success[10]. They five principles are:

  • Clarity (about what is to be achieved)
  • Challenge (still achievable, though)
  • Commitment (to the goal, by the team members)
  • Feedback (manager must take and give)
  • Task Complexity (needs to be considered)

These five principles must be considered when formulating goals, if it is an ambition to succeed. When using the SMART goals, it must not take away focus from these five principles. The SMART acronym only addresses the first principle. When expanding the acronym to SMARTER the remaining four principles can be addressed.

When setting goals, a manager can use the SMART(ER)-acronym to check if the goals are well stated [6], if the acronym is meaningful defined in a way that supports the organisations overall goal and it considers the five principles of Latham and Locke. If these things are not considered, the mnemonic might not be useful.

Annotated Bibliography

Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goals Setting and Task Motivation Two of the leading scientists within theories of Goal Setting theory is summarizing 35 years of empirical research. They describe their core findings and the relations between goal setting and performance. They present the application and limitations of the goal setting theory.

MacLeod, Les (2012). Making SMART Goals Smarter Les MacLeod studies the difference between goals and objectives in this article, where he comes up with an suggestion for how to use SMART goals in a health care organisation. He suggests to add Engaging and Rewarding to the acronym, as well as he states that in health organisations should SMART Goals be SMARTER Objectives.

George T. Doran (1981). There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write Management's goals and objectives. Management Review George T. Doran addresses the problem that writing goals can be a stressful chore that most managers are not capable of doing, even though it is recognised effective goals can give the company a sense of direction. He claims that objective setting must become a way of life and managers must be educated to set job objectives within their business.

Project Management Institute. “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)”- Sixth Edition, 2017 The PMBOK Guide is the guide to Body Of Knowledge within Project management, providing widely accepted standards and guide in the use of them. It covers most aspects within project management, although PMI, the publisher, realizes that no book can contain the whole Body of knowledge. This comes clear when the reader looks for motivation in a team, or goal setting techniques. Still, the PMBOK recognizes the importance of both.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 George T. Doran (1981). There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write Management's goals and objectives. Management Review,, Retrieved March 4, 2019
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Rubin, Robert S. (2002). 'Will the real SMART goals please stand up?.
  3. 3.0 3.1 E. A. & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation, American Phychologist, 57(9), 705-717
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Les MacLeod (2012). Making SMART Goals Smarter. Physician Executive, Volume 38, Issue 2, pp. 68-70, 72
  5. MIT Department for Human Resources Retrieved March 4, 2019
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Harvard Business Review: 3 popular goal setting techniques managers should avoid Retrieved March 4, 2019
  7. Project Management Institute. “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)”- Sixth Edition, 2017, p.197
  8. 8.0 8.1 Yemm, Graham (2012) FT Essential Guide to Leading Your Team: How to Set Goals, Measure Performance and Reward Talent, Pearson UK
  9. Project Management Institute. “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)”- Sixth Edition, 2017, p.341
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Retrieved March 4, 2019
  11. Project Management Institute. “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)”- Sixth Edition, 2017, p.309
  12. Project Management Institute. “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)”- Sixth Edition, 2017, p.60
  13. Geraldi, J (2017) How to DO projects, p.87

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