Project & Resource Management

How to Create SMART Goals for Project Managers

Image of a man working at a laptop with a cup of coffee.

Goals, where would we be without them? While we’d still be able to function without goals, our work would suffer without the direction they provide. We wouldn’t be able to quickly, effectively, and consistently analyze performance against what we’ve set out to achieve.

SMART goals are useful at the personal, project, and organizational levels and help optimize productivity and guide us towards success. So, how can project managers use SMART goals to their advantage?

What is a SMART Goal?

A SMART goal is a goal that has been devised using the framework set out by the SMART method. This acronym was first developed in 1981 by George T. Doran to make goal-setting more constructive and effective.

The acronym stands for the five qualities all good goals should be; Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. This sets SMART goals apart from regular goals, which often lack direction and strategic thinking.

SMART goals vs. SMART objectives

You may wonder, is there a difference between goals and objectives? While a goal is a broader destination that one intends to reach, objectives are the measurable tasks that will help one get there. Here are the key differences:

  • Goals are long-term; objectives are short-term.
  • Goals are the destination; objectives outline the steps to meet the goal.
  • Goals are set for the whole team; objectives are broken down into tasks assigned to smaller teams or individuals.
  • Goals are based on business strategy; objectives can be tweaked based on changing circumstances.

When working with the SMART methodology, all goals and objectives should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound and work together cohesively.

What are the Benefits of Setting SMART Goals?

Setting a goal without considering whether or not it’s SMART is like boating out to sea with a rough destination in mind but no map of the route to get there. A study by Harvard Business School found a link between goal setting and success, observing that the 3% of MBA graduates who had written their goals down made ten times more than the other 97% combined.

Setting SMART goals has a myriad of benefits. At the organizational level, goals provide a guiding light for all employees, ensuring cohesion in all work produced across the business. At a project level, SMART goals ensure time is not wasted on irrelevant, vague, or unrealistic tasks. They help create a clear project plan against which success can be measured and, once they trickle down to the objective level, can be adjusted along the way. This helps teams keep focused and motivated to achieve these goals.

How to Create Your SMART Goals as a Project Manager

All projects have their ups and downs. There are a million reasons a project may not run smoothly, many of which are out of your control. However, one of the most common reasons plans go awry is that the goals set for the project weren’t clear.

SMART goals can’t stop things from going wrong, but they can help define a project’s outcome and the steps you need to take to get there. Here’s how to create your SMART goals as a project manager.

Consider Your End Goal

Before worrying about whether your goals and objectives are SMART or not, consider where the project needs to go. This involves thinking about the desired outcome for the project. What level of quality is considered acceptable? Do you want to challenge your team? How will the goal benefit the business? Make sure to consider stakeholder expectations for the project and any expectations you and your team have. 

Make it Specific

One of the biggest pitfalls of goal-setting is that people fail to make their goals specific. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to "get more downloads for our client’s app," but this goal can’t be planned against effectively and there are no benchmarks for progress and success to be tracked against.

Specificity when it comes to goal setting is akin to clarity. The more vague the goal is, the harder it is to judge your progress. A SMART goal should succinctly describe what you want to achieve from the project. The example above is so vague that as few as one new download would technically count as "success", though we suspect the client wouldn’t be blown away by that result. A more specific alternative would be, "achieve 10k app downloads in the next 30 days."

Make it Measurable

Making a goal measurable means outlining what evidence will help prove that progress has been made or that the goal has been reached.

Looking again at our bad example, is "get more downloads for our client’s app" measurable? Absolutely not. Comparatively, "achieve 10k app downloads in the next 30 days" provides a clear indication of how many downloads the team needs to generate and in what timeframe.

When a project is well underway, having an easily measurable goal is helpful for gauging project progress. Taking a moment to track your progress to date against the metrics set up in the SMART goal will make it clear whether or not you’re on track to hit your targets.

Based on the example above, if you’ve achieved 5k downloads by 15 days into the project, you’re on track to reach your goal. If you’ve only achieved 700 downloads in that time, you have two weeks to course correct and consider alternative approaches to the task.

Make it Achievable

While most people grew up being told to shoot for the stars, SMART goals recommend project managers be more realistic. While there’s nothing wrong with ambition and setting lofty goals, there are many benefits to ensuring goals are achievable.

Routinely setting unachievable goals is a surefire way to demotivate and annoy your team. Everyone likes the feeling of accomplishment, and while that doesn’t mean you should make goals too easy, any goal should look achievable from the outset. One way to gauge whether a goal is realistic is to look at past performance, which can form the basis of future goals. 

A 1981 study found setting more challenging and specific goals led to higher performance among 90% of participants compared to easy goals or no goals at all. To challenge your team, simply raise the stakes enough to get them thinking without making the task seem impossible. 

Unrealistic goals include those that don’t consider the complexities of the task or the resource required or those that expect difficult tasks to be completed within a short turnaround. Simply asking yourself, "can this actually be done?" can save a lot of pain later.

Make it Relevant

While there may be exceptions here and there, goals should be checked against the organization's long-term ambitions and values to ensure that they’re relevant.

It’s also important to ensure project goals don’t negatively impact those set for other projects running concurrently, especially if they’re being run by another project manager. Most businesses handle several projects at once, and regularly reviewing goals, objectives, and the resources available can help with effective project planning. For example, if your project goal will require resources to be moved off another project, the team needs to consider which of the competing goals should be prioritized for the long-term health of the business. 

Make it Time-Bound

All SMART goals should be allocated a timeframe to be achieved within. While no one wants to admit it, having an open deadline leads to procrastination. End-dates should be ambitious yet realistically achievable. This provides motivation whilst allowing time for task prioritization. 

Both SMART goals and objectives require deadlines. In the example above, the deadline for the goal is set 30 days after the project commenced. The objectives outlined to achieve this goal will have their own deadlines, with some signaling the start of a new objective.

Examples of SMART Goals for Project Managers

Here are some more examples of SMART goals for project managers.

Launch three new websites each quarter, totaling twelve new websites this year, marking a 50% increase in website launches compared to the previous year

  • Specific: A target number of websites has been specified in the task. It’s clear that there is a focus on web development.
  • Measurable: It will be easy for employees to track progress quarterly.
  • Achievable: This is a realistic goal for a growing business and is based on previous performance, though it’s also a healthy challenge.
  • Relevant: The business in this example is an agency specializing in building websites, so this goal is relevant to their overall goals.
  • Time-bound: It’s clearly stated that the period of time this goal stretches across is a year, with quarterly goals outlined.

Convert 50 new paying customers each month from newsletter subscribers.

  • Specific: This goal specifies where the leads are coming from and how many need to convert for the goal to be reached. This allows the team to focus on one specific area of communication, the newsletter.
  • Measurable: A clear metric is outlined. In order for the goal to be reached, at least 50 newsletter subscribers should be converted to paying customers each month.
  • Achievable: In this example, the audience is expansive with many new subscribers joining each month, so this is an attainable goal.
  • Relevant: Gaining more paying customers from an always-on marketing channel is always relevant.
  • Time-bound: This is a recurring monthly goal that allows the team to optimize throughout the month and challenge themselves to maintain or increase the conversion rate as time goes on.

How Forecast Can Help

Working effectively with SMART goals doesn’t stop once the goals are written. You also need to ensure the goals are shared widely with the team and regularly check in on your progress.

This is where Forecast can help. No matter what you’re tracking, Forecast helps you monitor your progress with a single glance. Even when you’re managing several competing goals, Forecast helps you keep on top of your workload.

Easy-to-use dashboards provide an overview of project profitability and automated data reporting allows you to make smart decisions on the fly. Plus, task cards create the collaborative spirit you need to keep productivity up.

Forecast means no more guesswork and a clearer understanding of how close you are to achieving your SMART goals and objectives.

Try Forecast out for yourself by signing up for a free trial below.

Written by

How to Boost Your Business with Advanced Analytics

Subscribe to the Forecast Newsletter

Get a monthly roundup of productivity tips & hacks delivered straight to your inbox