Kevin, a newly-promoted team leader at a small BPO firm, was recently called in for a management meeting. His boss wanted to discuss the dip in the performance of Kevin’s team for Q1 2023, and possible ways of addressing this problem.
Kevin realized that he assumed his new position without setting any goals or objectives with his team. As a result, they did not have a consensus of what success meant for them. Customer complaints started piling up, agent absenteeism was rising, and call transfers to other departments were becoming more frequent.
On the advice of his boss, Kevin sat down with his team to collectively formulate so-called SMART goals to improve overall performance.
SMART goals have long been used as a framework for organizational goal-setting. It’is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
First coined by George T. Doran in a Nov. 1981Management Reviewarticle, this acronym has in fact evolved through the years, with the meaning of the letters changing. For instance, an episode of the Manager Mysteries and Mishaps: How to be a Great Manager podcast pointed out that based on a simple Internet search, other definitions include:
Later on, even more, variations emerged. Some have additional letters, such as with SMARTER, where the “E” stands for “evaluative,” and the second “R” refers to “rewarding.”
Arguably, the first definition is the most commonly used. In his widely read article on the topic, Doran explained that he came up with the SMART acronym because “managers are confused by all the verbiage from seminars, books, magazines, consultants, and so on” about how you should go about writing meaningful objectives or goals for their organization.
People should not understate the importance of goal-setting in any endeavor, especially when it comes to pursuing career aspirations, building a business, or even achieving personal objectives and milestones. This is also true for companies.
Without clear organizational goals, everything would simply fall into chaos. Employees wouldn’t have a real sense of what they are contributing to or working for on a day-to-day basis.
One of the challenging aspects of goal-setting is writing out the goals themselves. This is where the SMART Goals method is particularly useful. It provides a framework to follow.
It also ensures that the planning process is efficient and results in objectives that are clear, concrete and realistic, can be monitored, and have a definite timeline.
The benefits of SMART Goals are quantifiable. For instance, a 2011 meta-analysis of goal-setting research found that having goals that are specific and difficult resulted in notably higher group performance as compared to when goals were ambiguous or “non-specific.” This remained true, whether the tasks covered were highly interdependent, complex, or involved the employees in decision-making.
Research is abundant with evidence that demonstrates how using SMART Goals leads to better performance and outcomes. In fact, several studies have shown that SMART Goals result in increased productivity, improved focus and motivation among employees, enhanced decision-making abilities, better time management, and higher success rates.
The science of the positive relationship between goal-setting and organizational performance has long been established. One Organizational Behavior professor even wrote that the theory on how goals can lead to high achievement (known as “goal-setting theory”), “has demonstrated more scientific validity to date than any other theory or approach to work motivation.”
Several threads have emerged from research on goal-setting.
One is that well-thought-out goals help employees or group members become more productive by prompting them to exert more effort. Not only do goals provide the push to take action, but they also guide individuals where to devote more time and resources, or where to channel their efforts.
Another is that goals encourage people to persist in their tasks, even in the face of challenges. Goals help them persevere and endure hardships.
A third is that goals compel people to think more strategically or creatively about their tasks. Goals can serve as the anchor on which people can draw out their plans.
Much of the research on the benefits of goal-setting is qualitative in nature. However, one study was able to quantify the economic value to an employer of having goal-setting as a company practice. Based on the findings, a company could potentially register almost one-fifth (18%) of a bump up in productivity.
Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham, the leaders of goal-setting theory, even found in their seminal 1990 meta-analysis that productivity could rise up to 25 percent if goals were properly set within a company.
In 2004, Gary P. Latham wrote inThe Academy of Management Executiveabout the motivational benefits of goal-setting. He explained that having a goal provides a target at which a person can aim their efforts.
When a person commits to a goal, he or she “diverts attention toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal-irrelevant activities.” In short, goals give the minds of individuals something to focus on, a direction to follow.
And just as aForbes article says: “[W]hatever the mind believes, the body achieves. The body follows the mind.”
Latham then added that a well-crafted (read: SMART) goal can also act as “a standard for assessing one’s satisfaction.” The better a person is able to meet or even exceed their goal, the more satisfied they are. The farther they are from reaching that goal, the lower their satisfaction levels become.
Personal satisfaction plays an important role because what emerges is a sense of purpose and meaning–a motivation that compels a person to keep on going. When tied to a SMART goal, previously tedious tasks can all of a sudden take on a new air. They become steps to take toward greater satisfaction instead of being seen as mere burdens too heavy to carry.
SMART Goals can also help individuals—and in turn, organizations—make better decisions.
For instance, the more specific a goal is, the more clarity an individual worker or team has on which actions to take–and conversely, which to avoid or disregard completely.
Latham explained this briefly: “When people discover that they are below their goal, they typically increase their effort and/or modify their strategy.” If they did not know that they are in fact falling short of their targets, how can they make any adjustments to their work? Better monitoring of progress can also lift an individual or team’s morale, which could then encourage them to make bolder choices or even difficult decisions.
On the other hand, having achievable goals helps prevent burnout and frustration. This in turn ensures that people make decisions deliberately instead of impulsively or emotionally. Yes, goals should be challenging. But they shouldn’t be so unrealistically difficult or overly ambitious, as this could just discourage individuals altogether from taking any action.
Ensuring that goals are relevant to an organization or company widens the opportunity for people to buy in and affirm their commitment. And when people take ownership of the goals of their organization or company, it is more likely that they will take any decision-making process more seriously.
Finally, when goals are set against a definite timeline, people can plan ahead, make better decisions on which efforts to prioritize, and take action with a sense of urgency.
Using the SMART Goals framework leads to better plans and time management. An article about goal-setting as a time management tool summarized it this way: It provides direction, pushes people to meet deadlines, encourages them to avoid wasted time, and manages distractions.
These are among the key ways that better goal-setting–such as through the SMART Goals method–increases productivity. Not only does it have a positive effect on job performance, but better time- and resource management has also been shown to have a strong link with improved well-being (which also contributes to increased productivity.)
SMART Goals also increase the likelihood of success because they motivate individuals to persist and keep working on their tasks. What’s important isn’t that people achieve their goals immediately, but that they remain resilient in the face of obstacles. It’s this resilience that increases the success rate.
As mentioned earlier, SMART goals also help cultivate a sense of purpose. This encourages individuals to apply more grit to their tasks–a concept that is also linked to high performance (but that’s for another article!).
An October 2014 study with over 2,000 adolescents and young adults found that those who reported having a stronger purpose for learning also persisted longer on boring tasks and were less likely to drop out of college.
What many people fail to realize is that thinking about goals and targets is not really difficult. You might already have a picture in your mind of what you want or achieve. The challenge is in taking that picture, and writing down the words that describe that mental image in a clear and concise way. This is where the method proposed by George T. Doran many years ago proved to be most useful.
To recap, SMART stands for the following:
The goal must point to a clear and distinct area of improvement or problem to solve.
There must be a useful indicator or quantifiable measure for tracking the progress toward achieving a goal.
While the goal should be challenging, it shouldn’t be too ambitious or difficult to achieve.
The goal must matter to the team or organization. It must align with their values and aspirations.
Time-bound / Timely
To be effective, the goal must specify when the result must be achieved.
Remember Kevin and his decision to formulate SMART Goals with his teammates? We’ll try to recreate below a SMART Goal for his team.
Recall that Kevin’s boss called him in for a meeting because there were several areas where his team’s performance started to dip. Three problem areas were identified: an increase in customer complaints, a rise in agency absenteeism, and more frequent call transfers to other departments. SMART Goal statements would tackle only one of these areas at a time.
To make sure that a goal is specific, you could use the following guide questions:
An example of a specific goal wouldn’t be to “improve group performance,” but rather to “reduce the number of call transfers to other departments.”
So that progress is properly monitored and tracked, it would be best if the goal is quantifiable. If possible, a clear metric should be used.
Kevin’s team should aim to reduce call transfers to other departments, for instance. But by how much? Will they be successful if the team only has one less call transfer? What should the measure be for them to say they’ve achieved their goal?
To be measurable, the team’s goal could be worded as follows: “Reduce the number of call transfers to other departments by 100%.”
Call transfers to other departments signify that Kevin’s team was unable to resolve a customer’s issue by themselves. But it cannot be avoided that sometimes a customer would have an issue that only dedicated technical staff would be able to resolve. It would be unreasonable to aim for having absolutely no more call transfers to other departments. That is why an achievable goal for Kevin’s team would be “reduce call transfers to other departments by 50%.”
To check if a goal is achievable, you could ask: “Is the goal realistic? Is it reasonable to expect the team to accomplish the goal, given their resources and training?”
Goals are not pursued within a vacuum. Teams are often tasked with formulating their objectives, alongside other departments of the company doing the same thing. A successful company ensures that the efforts of its different units are aligned. That’s why it is important to make sure that goals fit well—have relevance—in the greater scheme of things.
Kevin’s company is a growing BPO firm specializing in voice-based services. They determined that customer satisfaction remains relatively high when a caller speaks with only one agent and has their issue resolved speedily. In other words, the fewer times a call is transferred, the better.
To put things into proper context, Kevin could reword his team’s goal: “Reduce call transfers to other departments by 50% in a bid to keep customer satisfaction high and help strengthen the company’s reputation of good service.”
Goals need deadlines to truly work. This is why the time parameters of the goal should be stated clearly.
To incorporate timeliness into his team’s efforts, Kevin could write the goal as, “Reduce call transfers to other departments by 50% before the end of Q3 2023 in a bid to keep customer satisfaction high and help strengthen the company’s reputation of good service.”
The pros of using the SMART Goals method are numerous. But so are its cons. For instance, some argue that SMART Goals are too rigid in their emphasis on clear indicators and measures of progress, as this could result in an overly narrow focus or view of the work. Then again, it would be naive to assume that SMART Goals are all that is needed to succeed.
No management method or business principle is full-proof after all. However, keeping in mind the common mistakes people make while using this method only increases the chances of success and high achievement.
One common mistake is to word your goals too broadly such that they become vague, ambiguous, or open to interpretation. Take for instance the ideas of “customer satisfaction” or “sales.”
You might think that “improve customer satisfaction” or “increase sales” would already be specific goals. But there are so many factors that determine whether a customer is satisfied or whether a sale has been made.
A team may identify a specific goal that they would want to pursue. But if they do not come up with a clear way of monitoring progress, they run the risk of getting distracted. This is why goals must be measurable.
It is true, some things aren’t easily quantified or measured in discrete units. But during such times, people can always get creative. What’s essential is that there is a way of tracking how effort translates to tangible results.
Another common mistake happens when people do not have a realistic idea of their capabilities. People could face a challenge with either too much confidence or too little.
If they have a bloated sense of their abilities, they will probably be crestfallen when they realize they’ve bitten off more than they could chew. They could end up disheartened though if they belittle themselves or diminish what they are capable of.
The trick is finding the sweet spot, which some may describe as being “cautiously confident.” Ultimately, it’s about having a sober view of yourself. The great Renaissance painter and thinker Leonardo Da Vinci reportedly said, “The height of a man’s success is gauged by his self-mastery.”
Crafting SMART Goals entails a lot of introspection and self-assessment. You may be so immersed in goal-setting that you forget about the world around you. You then fail to consider that there are external factors–over which you have no control–that could affect you and your organization’s success.
The basic mistake here is about failing to plan for problems that may just appear out of the blue. The way to avoid this pitfall is by identifying possible obstacles to achieving your goal, and thinking two or three steps ahead.
Some have the mistaken belief that once they have crafted their SMART Goal, all they need to do is execute their plan. In reality, goal-setting should be seen as a continuing process driven by constant feedback.
Things always change or shift. Unexpected developments may suddenly demand letting go of previously held assumptions. What’s important is to remain flexible and nimble.
Writing one SMART Goal is the easy part. Making them a reality is the true challenge. And in the face of many obstacles, you must do everything you can to hold yourself accountable to the goals you have committed to achieving. Here are some tips:
No matter how well-crafted a company’s SMART Goal is, an individual still needs to clarify why pursuing that goal is personally important to them. Without that personal connection or that sense of purpose, the drive to achieve may easily lose speed and sputter to a halt. All of this demands a lot of introspection and self-assessment. Keeping a journal might come in handy.
Consider finding an accountability partner--or someone who can help keep them on track–in the journey of pursuing their goals. This tactic has been proven to work, as the American Society of Training and Development once found that people are 65 percent more likely to meet a goal once they have committed to another person.
If the accountability partners check in with each other more regularly, then the likelihood of success goes up to 95 percent. Goal-setting expert Gary Latham explained that “making one’s goal public enhances commitment because striving to attain it enhances one’s integrity in one’s own eyes as well as in the eyes of others.”
If done right, SMART Goals allow you to monitor how well you are doing with reaching your objectives. Within the context of a company or an organization, tools such as KPIs, metrics, or surveys can be used to track progress. Meanwhile, online resources abound for doing such monitoring for personal goals. Again, journaling can prove to be useful.
Pursuing a goal shouldn’t all be about hard work. Whenever it is warranted, take time out to celebrate the fruits of your efforts and reward those who deserve it. Whether it’s a small gift, a lunch out, or a sincere pat on the back, such celebrations of success and rewards of achievement are crucial because they reinforce good behavior and sustain commitment.
Every success comes with its share of setbacks. But each of these failures could be easily converted into boons. Steps should be taken to consciously learn from failures and veer away from what some have called the blame game, where more importance is placed on finding those at fault.
The SMART Goal method is an effective planning tool that individuals or entire organizations can adopt to ensure that their goal-setting efforts result in improved performance, high achievement, and success.
Research that demonstrates the tangible benefits of SMART Goals is not only abundant but also authoritative. If you are looking to pursue new career goals or your company wants to make some changes, writing SMART goals today would be a step in the right direction.
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