3 Things that Make SMART Goals Work

While the idea of SMART goal-setting is not new, there’s a reason this nugget of managerial wisdom has stayed relevant since George T. Doran first mentioned the idea in 1981’s Management Review. Our team has supported many organizations with goal-setting, and consistently we identify two challenges - how to set SMART goals that will stick, and how to measure progress toward them. We have found there are three easy steps to ensure your team is setting SMART goals that resonate and are impactful.

1. Measure Success

A key factor of SMART is the “M” for Measurable. Employees and managers must know what success looks like, to avoid setting goals that are unclear. We frequently see managers giving credit, when maybe none is due, because they are anxious about giving negative feedback. The employee and manager can’t celebrate success or feel confident about feedback without viewing that path to success.  We call the benchmarks “bumpers.”

One way to make this work is to have the employees establish their own measurement criteria or bumpers. Invite them to define what it will mean when they are “behind” on a goal, “on track” and “ahead.” Have the employee spell out these criteria before they start working on the goal, so everyone is clear about what success looks like.


2. Collaborate on Defining Success

In many work environments, goal setting between manager and employees happens once or twice a year. The manager is typically in charge of deciding whether the employee has met a goal. Frequently, compensation is tied to the success of the goal, adding pressure to the meeting.

For SMART goals to be effective, the manager and employee need to discuss progress along the way, together, with the previously defined bumpers. This allows them to tweak and realign the goals, so when the target date arrives, both the manager and employee are absolutely clear and have discussed progress along the way. This avoids surprises, and empowers everyone.

3. Celebrate Success

It’s important to celebrate success after all the steps are in place: measurement criteria are established, the manager and employee have discussed progress, tweaked the goal or eliminated roadblocks, and, finally, goal attainment is met. This can be as simple or elaborate as the team dynamic allows. Options might include a gift card, or company-wide kudos or shout-outs, or simply the manager giving praise on an individual or team basis.  

No matter what, be sure to acknowledge the employee’s accomplishments. Positive reinforcement is a basic tenet of high-functioning teams: offering feedback and praise encourages repeat attempts.   

The goal-setting process can be as simple and hassle-free as you choose. It just takes a bit of preparation and care. Once great goals are set with buy-in from everyone on the team, you’ll find that your team will stick to and achieve amazing things.