How to set clear and measurable SMART objectives

Creating clear, measurable objectives and holding others to account for them is one of the most important practical skills of a leader. There is a real skill to capturing clearly and precisely the essence of what needs to be achieved, while making sure it is easily measurable – and that the measures and standards you use are the right ones. 

Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.

Tony Robbins

 A useful guide is to remember the acronym SMART. Your objectives should be:

Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time-bound

A SMART objective must be objectively measurable and/or observable – anybody should be able to see and agree that it has been achieved.

Easy objectives to set are those which address numerical targets:

  • Achieve fee income of £xxx, by (date), with x% write-off rate.
  • Make xxx prospect calls and set up xxx well-qualified meetings during (time period).
  • Sign up xxx new clients in our target markets during (time period).
  • Achieve budget of £xxx by (date).
  • Reduce costs by x% by (date)
  • Develop and test client survey by (date). Administer to xx clients by (date). Report due by (date).
  • Achieve client satisfaction of 75% or above on client survey during (time period).
  • Reduce the backlog of enquiries from xx to yy by (date).

Other objectives may address in-department projects, personal development needs and day-to-day behaviours. Agree measures with the job holder; you may need to be creative to ensure that the objective is objectively (ie by someone other than you!) measurable and/or observable.

Use clear descriptive statements of the ideal outcome or behaviour you are aiming at:

  • Improve accountability in my team this (time period).

Measured by: improved quality of work (% right first time, number of trivial errors); supervision level reduced with no loss of quality (managerial time spent in hours/minutes); stakeholders are happy (director satisfaction, client satisfaction etc.)

  • Improve perception of self this year from one of resistance and lack of interest; accept feedback willingly.

Measured by: unsolicited feedback (number of instances); formal review (manager and colleagues); 360 degree feedback

  • Improve meeting of deadlines in my team.

Measured by: improved quality of work (% right first time, number of trivial errors etc.); deadlines missed (target = 0); time freed to focus on other tasks (time freed up in hours/minutes).

  • Develop a new process to ensure regular contact with long term clients by (date).

Measures: no client goes longer than xx months without personal contact; no clients missed; every client has face to face contact at least every x years; client feedback; new business from long-term clients

You can see that to produce these more qualitative objectives, you need to be creative and think really hard about what the meaningful measures are. A common mistake is to fall back on crudely quantifiable numbers, but these often aren’t a meaningful measure of what you are really after.

For example, when I started as a company training manager in my early career, my initial set of measures, given to me by my manager, were:

  • Number and frequency of training courses per year
  • Number and level of employees trained
  • Number and variety of courses attended per employee
  • Scores obtained on the end-of-course evaluation survey

Are these really a meaningful measure of how effectively I was doing my job? Not really. By the time I left the company a few years later, the measures were:

  • Agreed learning objectives met (these were agreed between participants and their managers before the training programme)
  • Changes in participants’ behaviour
  • Feedback from participants’ managers, immediately following the training and 6 months and one year on
  • Improvements in participants’ measurable results (ie they met or exceeded their own performance objectives as a result of the training)
  • All stakeholders’ satisfaction (measured by asking them!)

All these standards are not as easy to measure as the crudely quantifiable list above, but they are a much more accurate read out of how effectively I was doing my job as training manager.

Some hints:

  • If you know quality work when you see it, then there is a set of criteria you are using. You may not be consciously aware of it, nor immediately able to articulate it, but it is there.
  • With sufficient rigour, you can always come up with a list of clearly observable or measurable behaviour or result statements.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of using crude numerical measurements just because they are easier.

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