I think most people have heard of creating SMART goals, and a good number of people can even list a few of the words in the acronym. But I haven’t run across, well, anyone really, who is actively using that pneumonic to help them in their work-a-day activities. If you are one of those people who dismiss the “old SMART goals chestnut” as one of those things that managers and HR folks like to recommend but that really has no practical use, I’d like you to rethink that.
To help, I’ve written a series of articles about how I use SMART as a checklist to help me craft not just goals, but work tasks, project breakdowns, work expectations, and more.
Just so we’re all on the same page (talk about an old chestnut), let’s review what SMART stands for. In my applications of this idea, the letters stand for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Different sources offer some variation on that – sometimes S stands for strategic, and A can stand for Assignable or Actionable. While none of those alternatives really work for me, I like that there are other ways that you can apply this idea to help you tailor it to your situation. For the rest of this series, though, I’m sticking with my original definition. Note that Wikipedia has a very nice collection of resources for this and provides a matrix of a wide range of different terms for each letter. I found it eye opening, but not that helpful (like so much of the Internet).
The acronym has been around for a long time—some sources say that it was first used in 1955; several others say it was coined in 1981 by George T. Doran in a paper he wrote called “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives.” I haven’t been able to find the actual journal with the original article though. If you find it, please point me there.
Since then, the idea has taken off (I mean… it has its own Wikipedia page), but in most cases that I’m familiar with – it is almost always associated with goals. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “Remember to write your SMART Goals”! And most often, THAT reminder was associated with the very dubious practice of annual performance reviews. There is a good bit of research showing that performance reviews as most of us know them are a complete waste of time (Note to self: add “useless performance reviews” to my list of topics to write about). But I can’t help but think that this association is why a lot of folks are lukewarm (or less) to the idea of SMART. First impressions can be lasting – so if the first time you were introduced to the idea was from a top-down memo telling you to write the required SMART goals for your required performance evaluation… well… I can’t really blame you for being lukewarm.
But…stick with me. I’d like to expand your thinking of how the SMART acronym can become a checklist that will help you… yes… really help you… craft work tasks, expectations, project definitions, and yep, even goals that will lead to better outcomes for both you and your team.
Let’s start where most things start… at the beginning… with Could you be a little more specific?