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SMART goal-setting technique: planning methodology and concrete examples

The SMART technique is a goal-setting methodology that is used in business and personal management. Alina Meller, an Agile coach, explains with detailed examples how to set SMART goals correctly, avoiding mistakes and optimizing your chances of success.

Agile coach Alina Meller

— I am an Agile coach, and my entire career is related to IT. I started in Customer Service but, since I am very goal-oriented, my career developed rapidly. I grew to become the Chief Administrative Officer of a large product-oriented company in Ukraine and consistently worked in management positions. In 2017, I started studying coaching. As soon as I did, I realized that there is a completely different way of communicating with people: not using a command and control system, but a system of task setting. First, this turned my personal life upside down: I started communicating differently with my husband, children, and relatives. And second, my communication at work changed. After a while, I realized that I didn't want to stay in management positions, but I was eager to help people and teams develop.

What are SMART goals?

— SMART is a goal-setting method. It is not something new or some kind of "magic pill." It was invented back in 1981. Its main idea was to help people focus. It is an acronym that describes the goal and is easy to remember. Let's break down the components:

  • Specific. The goal is formulated with specific words and objectives. It is very important that your SMART goal is formulated in a positive way. Do not say to yourself "I don't want to work here anymore," instead say "I want to have a new position at work." For example, "I want to become a solution architect."
  • Measurable. It must be easy to understand when the goal is achieved. The architect goal mentioned above will be measurable when the vague desire turns into a specific one: "I want to become a solution architect in a large corporation, with a certain work schedule and salary." The goal will be achieved when the architect is hired for such a position.
  • Achievable. Obviously, it is necessary to soberly assess the feasibility of the goal. Think ambitiously, but don't fly too high.
  • Relevant. Your goal should reflect something close to your heart, life position, and interests, and it should be created specifically for you. In our example, you need to ask yourself: "Do I really want to work as an architect, or do I just not like my profession right now?"
  • Time-bound. A SMART goal will sound like "I want to become an architect in a large company within the next 5—10 months."

How SMART goals work

— It often happens that when you ask a person "So, what do you want from your work?" they can immediately name a dozen things they don't like, but they cannot specifically articulate what will make them happier.

And now I will reveal the secret of all those workshops and webinars on fulfilling your desires. They advertise themselves like this: “Join us and your desire will come true in an unbelievable way.” In fact, there is nothing unbelievable about it. Our brain is a machine that processes an infinite amount of information every day. It continues to work and process gigabytes of data even when we do not consciously perceive it. A SMART goal is an opportunity to filter our thoughts. Figuratively speaking, goal setting is the ability to set up this "filter."

When I dream of becoming an architect, for example, suddenly I start receiving emailed offers for training. Or in a cafe, I say to my friend "I'm tired of monotonous tasks, I would like to be an architect." And he responds, ”Listen, we've been looking for an architect for a long time.” And we feel like — this is some kind of fantasy, it works! In fact, these opportunities could have been there earlier, we just started noticing them now.

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How to set SMART goals

— I suggest that first, everyone should think about where they are going, and understand how much they really want the goal they are focusing on. I call this the theme of your life. It could be professional growth, financial independence, family, relocation, or something else. Only afterward should you identify and write down the small steps relevant to achieving this goal. Think: “Based on the fact that I want to be a solution architect, what do I need to do?”

  1. Take a test to understand my skill level.
  2. Find out the scope of my knowledge, based on the test results.
  3. Adjust my goal as necessary. If my knowledge level is only 2 out of 100, maybe I should aim to become a senior developer for now.
  4. Calculate the time needed to accomplish my goal.

I recommend starting from big to small if you visualize your goal strategically. But it won't be a mistake to start planning in reverse order.

I also suggest trying Scrum. All the SMART methods are embedded in it. It involves limited time — sprints (two weeks, three weeks). Nowadays, this method seems more relevant because the world is changing so fast that setting annual goals, or even six-month goals, is almost impossible.

I review my life plan every two weeks. To do this, I set myself sprint-goals — tasks for two weeks. Our goal — to become a solution architect — fits perfectly into this sprint.

  • Specific — take a test to determine knowledge and skills.
  • Measurable — receive a specific grade, score, or percentage on the test.
  • Achievable — within a two-week time frame, everyone can easily determine if they can complete the task without overloading themselves or experiencing constant stress.
  • Relevant — interest in an achievable goal is higher.
  • Time-bound —the time frame of our sprint.

Under the conditions identified in this example, a person is relieved of excessive pressure and clearly understands how they are moving towards their ultimate goal.

It is necessary to conduct a retrospective after each sprint, and ask yourself: "What can I improve about my goals?" Spend 10—15 minutes reflecting, consider whether the result of a particular task is satisfactory. If not, change your approach for the next sprint. For example, you passed the knowledge test, but next time you need to find a more detailed one that will also provide recommendations for continued learning.

How long does it take to set SMART goals?

— Smaller goals are easier to prepare for and plan. Short planning intervals offer flexibility and adaptability. For teams, it is recommended to have one hour of planning per week of work. This is highly individual, though.

The hardest part of goal setting is getting started. You should take steps to make starting easy. If you want to increase your sales by improving your level of English, your English study book should be next to your keyboard, and the studying app should be downloaded on your phone. When you have 2 free minutes in the elevator, you immediately open the app.

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How SMART goals can help business

— Almost every business goal is built on SMART principles. This is because businesses want to see the results in a specific measurable format and understand where the company or project is heading. It can be difficult to set measurable time-bound goals in your personal life, while in business it is almost impossible not to do so.

The planning horizon in business may vary depending on whether you can break down tasks into subtasks. At the end of a sprint, for example, it is desirable to have some tangible results. I would recommend making the planning intervals as short as possible. This will allow you to focus on one thing without changing your plans. If something changes suddenly, however, you will be able to adapt quickly.

Even non-IT companies can benefit from the SMART approach. I have worked with companies involved in sales and service, and the SMART approach worked for them as well. The difficulty may lie in defining the goal clearly, without the need to micromanage employees. You want to avoid assigning separate tasks to one employee or another, and instead say "Listen, team, we need to cross from one riverbank to another, let's brainstorm how we can do that." The element of top-down, or external, control is removed.

Possible mistakes when setting SMART goals

— The most important thing is internal motivation. You need to understand whether you really want to do something right now or not. Sometimes, we set unrealistically huge goals for ourselves, and then end up saying ”Ooh, I'll start on Monday,” and then we never actually do it.

There may be problems with control as well. In business, there are specific responsible individuals who monitor the work of employees and set clear deadlines. But in your personal life, who controls you? When a deadline is too far away (about a year), it is difficult to continue to effectively perform routine tasks since the results will not be noticeable for a long time. Willpower and accountability to yourself are needed.

When setting goals, we should be able to see the benefit to ourselves. Our desire to receive that benefit should be greater than the difficulty of starting the process.

A change in context can also throw you off track. For example, maybe you wanted to become an architect to earn more money, but you suddenly got a promotion or a raise. Then, it may seem like the effort you put into achieving the goal is not worth the outcome you would have received.

This feeling of setting a goal and not achieving it is very destructive, in my opinion.

It is important to reward yourself or reward your colleagues for their work (if we are talking about a team), so that you feel: I did the work — I received a benefit. You should always have a feeling of joy and pride in your efforts.

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