Formal or SMART Objective Setting

In August 2016, we recorded a podcast with Garry Platt (Who’s afraid of SMART objectives? You don’t need to be). In the podcast, Garry proposes an approach to SMART objectives that sucks the pain out the whole tiresome process of trying to write objectives and make them fit the omnipresent SMART acronym.

Below is the written version of Garry’s approach to SMART.

The full document is available on request and includes exercises and sample objectives that can be used in the training room. Contact us to get a copy of the document.

Here is a link to Garry’s podcast on an alternative to SMART objectives for circumstances that don’t fit well with SMART.


Formal or SMART Objective Setting

by Garry Platt

Most of the managers I have ever spoken to know what the acronym SMART means in relation to setting objectives, but equally very few of them can actually write good objectives which comply with all the criteria.

I think this is because the definitions of SMART are actually quite vague when you start to explore them. Clarifying what SMART means in precise terms really helps managers understand and produce good effective objectives. So here it is, the definition of SMART.



Specific in the context of developing objectives means that an observable action, behaviour or achievement is described which is also linked to a rate, number, percentage or frequency.

This latter point is extremely important – let me illustrate. ‘Answer the phone quickly’ can be said to be a precise description of behaviour, you can clearly see whether someone answers the phone or not, but there is no rate, number, percentage or frequency linked to it. So, if I state; ‘Answer all phone calls within 3 rings’ a rate has been added and the behaviour is now specific.

Summary: Is there a description of a precise or specific behaviour / outcome which is linked to a rate, number, percentage or frequency?



This is very simple, a system, method or procedure has to exist which allows the tracking and recording of the behaviour or action upon which the objective is focussed.

Setting an objective that requires phone calls to be answered in three rings is fine, provided a system exists which measures whether this is actually being achieved. If none exists the manager must be prepared to set time aside time to actually monitor the response rates to incoming phone calls. The only other alternative is to get the person with whom the objectives are being set to measure their own progress; in some cases and situations it may be acceptable to do this, in others maybe not – use common sense to decide this.

Summary: Is there a reliable system in place to measure progress towards the achievement of the objective?



The objectives that are set with people need to be capable of being reached, put most basically; there is a likelihood of success but that does not mean easy or simple.

The objectives need to be stretching and agreed by the parties involved.

Setting targets that are plainly ridiculous does not motivate people; it merely confirms their opinion of you as an idiot. They will apply no energy or enthusiasm to a task that is futile.

Consider sending a group of footballers out to play a game having told them the final score already, and they’ve lost! What’s the point? So don’t do it.

(Some people feel that Agreed should stand for the definition of A in SMART. But as this relates to the process of communicating and deciding the objective rather than a definition of the content it seems out of context in relation to the rest of the criteria and consequently I do not use it. I concur however that objectives should indeed be agreed between involved participants rather than enforced)

Summary: With a reasonable amount of effort and application can the objective be achieved?



This means two things; that the goal or target being set with the individual is something they can actually impact upon or change and secondly it is also important to the organisation.

Example: Telling the cleaners that they ‘have to increase market share over the next financial quarter’ is not actually something they can do anything about – it’s not relevant to them. However, asking them to reduce expenditure on cleaning materials by £50 over the next three months’ is entirely relevant to them. It’s what they spend their budget on every day.

As to whether it’s relevant to what the organisation is trying to achieve, the manager has to decide this by considering the wider picture of what the organisation is trying to achieve.

Summary: Can the person with whom the objective is set make an impact on the situation? Do they have the necessary knowledge, authority and skill? Is the task important and pertinent to the business?


Time Based

This is probably the simplest of the lot. In the objective somewhere there has to be a date (Day/Month/Year) for when the task has to be started (if it’s ongoing) and/or completed (if it’s short term or project related).

Simply; No date = No good.

Summary: Is there a finish and/or a start date clearly stated or defined?


There are numerous other variations on SMART in terms of what the letters stand for but this set works and creates viable, practical objectives.

On request to Trainer Tools, we can send you a written version of the above with a following page that has a simple paper exercise which managers find useful to complete.

It is very simple and just lists a series of objectives that have to be assessed for SMART compliance. The exercise has its limitations because it is difficult to know whether the host organisation has a system for Measuring progress or whether the objective is Achievable, we do not have the full details, but with a degree of practical thinking most of the answers can be worked out.

The discussions that explore how each of the managers has marked the objectives quickly identify those people who have understood or misunderstood the concepts. Typically the reviews and analysis of their answers is sufficient to clarify any misunderstandings.

They can then go on to write objectives that really do comply with SMART criteria. Indeed this is an excellent summary exercise to do with a group of managers; i.e. consider two members of their staff with whom SMART objectives could be set and get them write up two examples on flipchart.

Once shared with the rest of the group the discussion should identify whether these are SMART or whether further work is needed and how in fact they could be made to comply with SMART criteria.