How to Set SMART Goals

Goal-Setting Done Right

SMART goals are written statements that clearly describe certain actions or tasks with a measurable end result. Goal-setting is the foundation for individual and organizational success, and while organizations are often diligent about setting goals for the company, they do not always filter down to the rank-and-file. But it is individual performance that drives the success or failure of these strategies. As coaching great Vince Lombardi said, “The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.”


The most effective goals are SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. “John’s third quarter 2012 customer service scores will increase by 10% over third quarter 2011,” is an example of a smart goal.

    • Specific. Specific goals express who is responsible, what is going to be done, when it will be completed, and how it is going to be done. They are clear and unambiguous, leaving no room for misinterpretation of the desired outcome, while still leaving the employee room to use their own creativity and expertise to meet the goal. Specific goals use action words and state the goal in clear, positive terms.
    • Measurable. Measurable goals keep the individual, department, and organization on track and heading in the right direction. They include concrete criteria by which progress will be assessed. The increments of measure must be objective, not subjective, and may include quantity, quality, satisfaction levels, cost reduction, and timeliness. When a goal is measurable, you will know when it has been achieved. Building milestones into the goal will help keep motivation high.
    • Achievable. Goals should be ambitious, but realistic and attainable. If a goal is set too low, it will not inspire; set too high, it will be de-motivating and may simply be ignored. When establishing goals, be mindful of what the individual does and does not have control of. If the achievement of a goal relies entirely on what another department or individual does, it will just lead to frustration.
    • Relevant. Relevant goals are tied to the company’s overall mission and vision. They are not based on extraneous “busy work”, but rather are meaningful and impactful. Relevant goals are consistent with other team member’s goals and fit with the department and organization’s short and long-term strategy.
    • Time-bound. Time-bound goals have defined start and end points. Without a time frame, there is no sense of urgency and goals tend to take a back seat to day-to-day responsibilities. Establishing a deadline helps to keep the goal front and center. The deadline should be realistic, but not so broad that it fails to motivate.

Goal Setting

  • Individual goals should be linked to the overall corporate objectives. A company doesn’t achieve (or fail to achieve) its goals – its people do. All employees must be working towards the same overall end, although the specific metrics may differ depending on the position’s role in the organization.
  • Goals should be linked from the corporate level to the department, manager, and down to the individual employee. This ensures goals at all levels are aligned and that one set of goals contributes to the next. Managers can, and should, cascade their own goals down to their staff.
  • In order to establish goals that are aligned with the corporate strategy, you must understand how the individual job fits into the structure. For some positions, this is easier than for others. If the key task of the position is sales, it is easy to see how performance directly impacts the company goals. But for support functions, such as HR, you must determine how that particular position drives the organization’s performance.
  • Don’t try to set too many goals, but instead identify the key priorities and establish goals around these. This type of goal is sometimes referred to as a WIG – Wildly Important Goal. These are the goals that will determine whether or not the organization, department, and individual are successful. If these WIG’s are not met, it really doesn’t matter what other goals are attained. For example, a surgeon’s WIG is to bring the patient successfully through surgery. If she doesn’t accomplish this, the impeccable documentation that follows, although important, will still not make the surgery a success.
  • Be flexible and don’t be afraid to adjust the goals throughout the year. Priorities and processes change throughout the year, and goals should be adjusted accordingly.
  • Goals should be written, rather than just “understood”. Reducing the goal to writing helps you to clarify precisely what it is you want to accomplish. Also, just the act of putting the goal in writing tends to increase the likelihood of achievement, because it indicates a greater level of commitment to the goal.
  • Each individual should be held accountable for his own goals. Ownership of the measure belongs with whom it is measuring, and includes such things as setting and achieving the targets, reporting results, and explaining any variances.
  • Goals should be established in collaboration with the employee. Whenever possible, employees should develop their own goals, rather than relying on top-down mandates. Managers should work with employees to set goals that will help the individual achieve his or her own career goals. For example, if in the performance evaluation discussion the manager learns that the employee wants to become a manager one day, the manager can then help her to identify any needed training or skill enhancement, and incorporate these items into the performance goals.
  • Set appropriate completion dates with milestone dates in between, and schedule periodic follow-up meetings to assess progress. This will help ensure any issues are identified and addressed along the way, rather than waiting until the end of the review period.
  • Don’t pick goals just because they are easy to measure, but rather base them on outcomes. Instead of setting a goal of making ten sales calls per day, set a goal of gaining three new customers per week. You may easily meet the ten-calls-per-day goal and still not be any closer to accomplishing the department’s sales goals. But by gaining three new customers, you will be.
  • Set your goals, work toward them, but understand that circumstances may arise that you have no control over, which may thwart your efforts. Don’t let these situations discourage or de-motivate you. Instead, revise goals if necessary, and press on.


In today’s competitive business climate, organizations must do everything they can to ensure all employees perform up to their full potential. Establishing corporate strategy-linked performance goals for all employees helps individuals fully understand the company’s business objectives and what is expected of them to help achieve these goals. It also provides managers with concrete standards with which to evaluate their staff. And of course, by setting and achieving the right goals, the organization can significantly improve its business performance.

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