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What is SMART in Project Management?

SMART refers to criteria for setting goals and project objectives, namely that these goals are: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. The idea is that every project goal must adhere to the SMART criteria to be effective. Therefore, when planning a project's objectives, each one should be:

  1. Specific: The goal should target a specific area of improvement or answer a specific need.
  2. Measurable: The goal must be quantifiable, or at least allow for measurable progress.
  3. Attainable: The goal should be realistic, based on available resources and existing constraints.
  4. Relevant: The goal should align with other business objectives to be considered worthwhile.
  5. Time-bound: The goal must have a deadline or defined end.

Specific

The goal should target a specific area of improvement or answer a specific need. Because it’s the first step in the SMART goal process, it’s important to be as clear as possible. Note the difference between “I will make lunch” and “I will use wheat toast, peanut butter, and strawberry jam to create a tasty sandwich for myself to eat”. See how specific it is? This example also illustrates the importance of word choice. Not only are you noting which ingredients or tools will be used to achieve the final outcome, but you’re also articulating who benefits. Details like these color your goal description, making it easier for collaborators to visualize and align intentions with. 

Measurable

The goal must be quantifiable, or at least allow for measurable progress. In this step, you’ll choose what your progress markers or project KPIs are and how you’ll measure them. This might mean adopting the right tools or restructuring your KPI’s to something that you can easily monitor. You’ll also need to define who is in charge of measuring your progress, when these measurements will take place, and where the information will be shared. 

Attainable

The goal should be realistic, based on available resources and existing constraints. Typical project constraints include team bandwidth, budgets, and timelines. Project managers should look to data from similar projects they did in the past for insight on what’s actually achievable this time around. 

Relevant

The goal should align with other business objectives to be considered worthwhile. You can also break down your project goal into smaller, equally relevant goals that will keep the whole team focused. Be diligent about eliminating irrelevant goals and subgoals to save significant time. 

Time-bound

The goal must have a deadline or a defined end. This can be measured in hours and minutes, business days, or years depending on the project scope. Get feedback from major stakeholders about their deadline expectations. Compare that to input from key team members who have a firm understanding of how long each task type will take to complete. 

You can write down your SMART goals and share them with your team using a shared document or an OKR template. An OKR template allows you to identify, build, discuss, track, and rate goals for both teams and individuals on any given project.

What are SMART goals?

In project management, setting effective goals and objectives is one way to achieve desired outcomes. One popular goal-setting technique is SMART. But what are SMART goals and how can project managers use them effectively and to their project’s advantage?

Definition of SMART goals
SMART goals are clearly formulated to be successful based on five simple principles while regular goals are outcomes you agree to strive for when you begin a project. In the acronym SMART, each letter represents one of these principles. If you create a goal, it must follow all five letters if you want it to be effective based on these principles.

Although the term first appeared in a 1981 issue of a business management magazine, SMART goals were born from psychological theory created in the late 1960s when researchers began testing the relationship between conscious decision-making and output. In Dr. Edwin Locke’s often quoted paper on the subject, he notes that “an individual's conscious ideas regulate his actions” and have a direct relationship to goal execution. People who set the intention to succeed by fully articulating a goal can achieve more than they could if they simply chose the desired outcome then went through the motions. 

His study also finds that it isn’t money, results, or external pressures that motivate high performance. It’s simply the act of breaking down a hard goal into a conscious purpose that others willingly share. So even though you can’t force someone to get excited about a project, you can set them up for success with highly structured objectives using the SMART goal method.  

Examples of SMART goals for project managers
As you’ll see from these examples, SMART goals can be applied to all aspects of project management including tool acquisition, ongoing assignments, and even tasks that are halfway done. Simplifying your SMART goal into one simple sentence like the ones below is a powerful tool for aligning your whole team around a shared intention. So even if you have more details and an action plan for your SMART goal, make sure you use your summarized SMART goal as a north star. 

  1. Adopt a work management tool (specific) that organizes at least 50 (measurable) incoming work requests per week (attainable) so that our team can streamline task assignment (relevant) within the 30 days of receipt (time-bound). 
  2. Create a social media marketing campaign template (specific) that plans out 1 daily Tweet every day for the next 30 days (measurable and attainable) to increase existing audience engagement (relevant) before our launch on the 1st of the upcoming month (time-bound). 
  3. Realign the current project deliverables schedule (specific) by assigning new due dates to all 3 small tasks (measurable) over the next 7 days (attainable) so that the original deadline remains the same (relevant) and clients can review the tasks by Friday (time-bound). 
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