This is the second in a series of articles about using SMART as a checklist to help get better outcomes for you and your team. I recommend you read my intro to this series for more information about the background of SMART, clarification of what the letters mean, and a general pep talk on why you should set aside any ambivalence you have for SMART and read on.


When we’re writing goals or building out tasks for a job role, I think most folks know that they need to be specific. But it can be tricky to land on the right level of specificity—not enough, and the task or goal is vague or unclear, too specific runs the risk of micromanaging and not allowing for creativity and autonomy.

It is good to think first about WHY you should make work goals and tasks specific in the first place. It might seem obvious, but sometimes is it good to state the obvious. When you are specific about what you want, it is so much easier for people to meet your expectations. You are setting them up for success. If you are vague or can’t really articulate what you want, you are doing just the opposite—positioning people to disappoint, setting them up for failure.

Have you ever worked for a manager who gave you an assignment with very few details, and then, when you showed them your idea, they said that was not at all what they had in mind. I call this playing “Guess What I’m Thinking,” and I do not like this game at all. Now, if the goal of this project was to iterate on an idea, and going in, you know that you’re going to have to try a few things to find the direction you want to go, that’s different. I’m talking about those managers who are doing this almost as a test to see how close you can get to what they want. Never had those managers? Lucky you.

If you know what you want someone to do, tell them that specifically. But, you might be thinking, isn’t this micromanaging? Maybe, and I’m glad you’re thinking about that.

If you really have a specific thing that needs to get done, say following a specific naming convention for files so that they sort correctly in a file folder, then it is not micromanaging to spell that out. In fact, if there is a specific process or a quality level that you’re looking for, it is demotivating when you don’t make that clear. It creates a situation where people are always falling short of what you want, and that isn’t good for anyone.

You can also be specific by focusing on the outcome.

Let’s look at an example:

Let’s pretend you own a fly fishing and guide shop, and you have an expectation that everyone who works there needs to know how to tie at least 3 different flies and needs know when to recommend those specific flies to your customers.

In this case, you don’t need to specify how they learn this, and it tells you a little bit about each person by the way that they tackle this. (By the way, in writing this I learned that there are hundreds of videos on how to tie flies. Pretty cool.)

If you don’t know specifically what you want them to do or what outcome you’re looking for, you really need to spend a little more time noodling on this, and the other letters in SMART can help you. I have found that the interplay between the letters is a terrific way to clarify and refine my thinking.

Specific’s best friend is Measurable. If you can’t measure it, it’s not specific enough. Likewise, Achievable can help you determine whether this work that you’re defining is too easy (maybe too specific) or way too hard.

We’ll talk about this interplay and review some examples in upcoming articles. Up next is Measurablewhich I have found to be the most helpful of the letters overall and is actually my favorite (don’t tell the other letters).