SMART goals - A Project Manager Tool

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S.M.A.R.T or SMART Goals are a tool for managers to use in order to make their objectives realistic and achievable. SMART is an acronym that most commonly stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound goals [1]. These are some important parameters to consider when the objectives of a project are being defined. SMART is an effective tool for managers in the initial phases of a project. The goals help in providing clarity, focus and encourage the motivation needed to achieve specific objectives. SMART goals are a significant tool for a manager to use, as clearly defined goals will make work more reliable, consistent and efficient. If everyone in a group can work towards the same realistic and achievable objectives the goals will have a greater chance of being accomplished. However, not all objectives and goals must incorporate all 5 SMART elements. As an example, not everything worth achieving is measurable [2].

SMART goals are a great tool to utilize as it is easy to practice and apply by anyone everywhere. SMART goals are applicable without the use of specialist tools or years of education. They can be applied to everything from your own personal life goals to the creation of a new Opera House. SMART goals are relevant to project management because it describes the process behind developing sufficient and relevant goals which defines the success criteria.

This article will explore how to develop goals that will give you something to work towards as well as presenting you with examples of how to apply SMART goals to your own project.


SMART is an acronym for one of the most well-known goal-setting techniques and a commonly used tool in performance planning and project management [2]. SMART offers a clear and simple framework on how to successfully achieve your goals. Even though SMART is well-known and commonly used tool it is barely mentioned in either the British- or the PMI standards. In the British standards SMART goals are mentioned as a part of the product description outlines for PRINCE2’s defined management products. According to these there are 3 types of management products, one of them being baselines. Baseline management products are those that define aspects of the project and are subject to change control. One of these are a project brief which is used to provide a foundation for the initiation of a project in the beginning of a project process. As a part of the quality criteria it is stated that the projects objectives should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (SMART) [3].

Within project management SMART can be found as a tool to be used in the purpose perspective. Success criteria is a measurable criterion chosen to determine whether the project has reached its desired goals. A good success criterion is a SMART one. SMART goals force you into creating clear and defining objectives and goals. This reduces risk of setting unclear objectives that are unlikely to be accomplished.

What Does it Stand For?

The generally accepted and first known use of the term SMART goals occurred back in the 1981 November issue of Management Review. In this issue, George T. Doran described the principles of SMART goals in his article “There’s a S.M.A.R.T way to write management’s goals and objectives”. Doran stated that managers (project managers) had a tendency of getting confused by all the verbiage from seminars and books when they were writing meaningful objectives. Therefore, he suggested that when it came to them writing effective objectives, they would simply have to think of the acronym SMART [4]. Doran’s original definition stated that ideally speaking, each corporate, department, and section objective should be:

  • 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 result can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
  • Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved [4].

Doran clearly stated that it was to be understood that the suggested acronym of SMART did not mean that every objective or goal would have all five criteria. As an example, not everything worth achieving is always able to be quantified or measured. However, he meant that the closer you would get to the SMART criteria as a guideline, the clearer the objectives would be.

SMART does not have a single definitive definition and the words in the acronym have changed meaning over time. In 2002 Robert S. Rubin wrote the paper: “Will the Real SMART Goals Please Stand Up?” [5]. In this paper he presented his simple findings of the different variations of the acronym SMART. He found that beside the most commonly used, SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) could also stand for:

  • S – Simple, sensible, significant.
  • M – Meaningful, motivating.
  • A – Acceptable, attainable, accountable, agreed-upon.
  • R – Realistic, relative, rewarding, reasonable.
  • T – Timed, time-frame, time-related, truthful and several others [5].

Even though it might seem confusing to have a technique with several different meanings this could just be the reason why the SMART goals have grown to be so popular. Through time people have had the possibility to change the original words to meet and fit their specific needs.

From here on the acronym SMART will be defined as the first mentioned variation: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound goals [1].

How to Apply SMART Goals to Your Project

Several different worksheets, templates and smartsheets are available online for you to create your own SMART goals. This article while try and summarize the most important things and guide you through the different steps to apply SMART goals to your own project, whether it is in a group or by yourself.

The worksheet on the right provides you with a tool to use on your own project. The worksheet will help you in defining clear, relevant and reachable goals. Fill in the boxes and use the guide alongside to reach your goals. Use it as early as possible in the process and include who needs to be included in order to stay coherent.

Example of a SMART Goals Worksheet to apply on your own project. Inspired by [6].

S - Specific

When you start setting goals, be specific and clear about what you want to accomplish. If your goals are specific you will be able to stay motivated and focus your efforts in order to achieve them. A suggestion on how to make your goals specific could be to consider the “w”-questions. Why – Ask yourself why the goal is important. What is the reason of the goal? Who – Consider who needs to become involved for you to achieve the goal? This is particularly important if you are a project manager and you are working on a group project. Who do you need to establish contact with? What – Be specific about what you want to accomplish. Go into details to make it clear to yourself and your project group. Where – Ask yourself where you want to accomplish your goals. Is a specific location necessary for you to achieve your goals? Which – Be clear about which limitations, requirements and resources are linked to your goals.

Example: Imagine that you are working at a company of 50 people and the company wants to hire 50 more employees within the next 5 years. The current facilities can only house 50 people so a new office building will have to be build. A specific objective might be, that you would like to create an office building according to the building regulations with room for 100 employees within 5 years.

M - Measurable

Setting measurable goals is important as it will enable you to track and measure project progress. By tracking measurable progress, you will gain the feeling of you project moving forward which will further motivate you and your project group. Try to address question such as: How can you measure progress? How many or much do you need? How will you know when you have achieved your goal?

Example: You might measure your objective by saying that within two years you will have established the entire project team and mapped the stakeholders. This includes architects, engineers, contractors and everyone else who is going to be involved in the project.

A - Achievable

You will need to ask yourself if the goals you are setting, are realistic. For you goals to become achievable you may have to develop new skills or change some things. The skills and tools you know might not stretch far enough for you to achieve your goals. Think about what I would take to achieve these. Try addressing whether you have the right skills. Are they obtainable? Is the effort worth the goal? What is the motivation?

Example: You will have to ask yourself if building a new office building for 100 people within 5 years is realistic. Is it realistic that the company will expand with 50 employees? You will have to make sure that you will have necessary time to manage the stakeholders and that the company can afford the new office building.

R - Relevant

It is important that your goals and objectives are relevant, and they matter to you and your project group. You should be certain that the objective is worthwhile and the time for achieving it is right. An idea could also be to consider whether you are the right one to achieve the goal. Ask yourself: why are you setting this goal now?

Example: Wonder if it is the right time to start building a new office building. How is the marked looking? Would it be cleverer to buy a new building rather than building your own? You might have competitors who are looking to expand as well so how does that affect your situation?

T - Time-bound

An important part of a goal is an end date. Your goals should always be time-bound so that you and your project team have something to work towards. If your goals lack a realistic timing, chances are that you will end up failing. It is clever to consider which deadlines you have and if they are realistically reachable. Try to map what you want to accomplish at a given time. What can you do today? What can you do half-way through the process?

Example: Set a clear and realistic timeframe for when you have accomplished the minor goals. Try and prepare for uncertainties and how to avoid them. What tasks needs to be finished before others? You will have to be in contact with the architect and the engineer before you the contractor can start his part of the job.

By following these guidelines, you will be able to make your goals achievable and have success within projects. It is important that if more people are working towards your goal all of you should agree on the SMART goals.

Was the Sydney Opera House SMART?

An example which often comes up when talking about poor project management is the construction of the Sydney Opera House. Around 1957 the construction of the Sydney Opera House was estimated to cost $7 million and to be finished by the end of 1962. The Opera House ended up taking 14 years to complete and cost $102 million [7]. In hindsight it is easy to see that several things went wrong in the project from a managerial point of view. But could all of this have been avoided had the New South Wales government just used the SMART goal-setting technique? Or was the project of the Sydney Opera House SMART? This all depends on which perspective you have. If the goal of the New South Wales government was to create a global symbol of Australia and one of the most iconic buildings in modern architecture, then they succeeded. Was the intention on the other hand, to create a functional Opera House within budget and timeframe, then they most certainly failed.

You cannot know for sure if the use of SMART goals would have made the project process less difficult. However, setting SMART goals would have helped them in providing clarity, focus and encourage the motivation that would have been needed to achieve the specific objective. One of the biggest conflicts regarding the project was the disparities in focus amongst the stakeholders. On one side, you had the architect Jørn Utzon who was mostly concerned with the quality and the design aspect of the Opera House. On the other hand, you had the state of New South Wales who was mainly concerned with time and cost objectives [7]. These disparities ended up causing major disagreements which ultimately caused the numerous delays and budget overruns.

The Sydney Opera House project is a great reminder of the importance of having clearly defined goals and objectives. If all stakeholders connected to a project can work towards the same realistic and achievable objectives the goals will have a greater chance of being accomplished. This was not efficiently practiced during the Sydney Opera House project which is why you cannot call it SMART.


Even though SMART goals are one of the most well-known goal-setting techniques it does seem to have certain limitations and drawbacks. And therefore, it might be time to ask if the SMART technique still stretches far enough? While it may be a good thing that people through time have had the possibility to change the original words to meet and fit their specific needs, it could also be the opposite. The mass representation of SMART goals has blurred the original meaning of the acronym which have meant that you can easily get lost in its meaning. Thereby SMART can often lose its efficiency and is more easily misunderstood.

Furthermore, it is stated that SMART does not represent the latest research done within goal-setting techniques. New techniques are rising in popularity like Lock’s Goal-Setting Theory [8]. Many states the importance on matters like feedback and efficacy. It has even come to the point where some have extended the acronym SMART with extra focus areas which include Evaluated and Reviewed, forming SMARTER [5]. This new acronym might be way more important today then the older one and we could ask ourselves, are these the only factors to consider if we want to achieve our goals?

Some critics have argued that SMART goals do not work well with long-term goals since it lacks flexibility. It is argued that it does not help you further down the line if circumstances change [2]. This is one of the reasons why SMART goals works better within project management rather than program- or portfolio management. SMART goals are harder to use on larger objectives which makes it a more suitable technique to be used by project managers.

Annotated Bibliography

This article presents an overview of SMART goals and help the reader in applying them to their own projects. For additional information it is recommended to investigate the following sources:

SMART Goals How to Make Your Goals Achievable - The Mind Tools Content Team provides some basic knowledge on SMART goals. Furthermore, the website provides examples of SMART goals in use.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SMART GOALS - Project Smart was the first website to put the SMART definition online. The website gives a general understanding and of SMART goals.

Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 2017 – Edition - A book on project management. SMART goals are only mentioned once so information on the topic is limited.

There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives - In the article George T. Doran uses the term SMART goals for the first time. He explains how you can reach your objectives by using SMART goals.

Will the Real SMART Goals Please Stand Up? - In this article Robert S. Rubin from Saint Louis University makes an interpretation of the acronym SMART and search to find todays meanings of the different letters.

Locke's Goal-Setting Theory – A newer goal-setting theory that challenges and builds upon the idea behind SMART goals.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Mind Tools Content Team. SMART Goals How to Make Your Goals Achievable. Retrieved 16. February 2019 from
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Duncan Haughey (2014). A BRIEF HISTORY OF SMART GOALS. Retrieved 16. February 2019 from
  3. AXELOS AXELOS. Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 2017 – Edition. The Stationery Office Ltd (2017). United Kingdom
  4. 4.0 4.1 George T. Doran (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. Retrieved 20. February 2019 from
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Robert S. Rubin (2002). Will the Real SMART Goals Please Stand Up?. Retrieved 20. February 2019 from
  7. 7.0 7.1 Jessica Irvine (2013). Why Sydney's Opera House was the world's biggest planning disaster. Retrieved 2. March 2019 from
  8. Mind Tools Content Team. Locke's Goal-Setting Theory. Retrieved 2. March 2019 from
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