Excellence University Blog

SMART Goals: What They Are, Why They Are So Valuable (and why so many struggle with them)

by Dr. Brian Higley

May 25th, 2007

I talk a lot with our clients about SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic, and Time-bound steps toward fulfilling their strategic plans.  I do this so frequently because my experience is that the best way to facilitate (and track) progress of strategic plans in meaningful and consistent ways is to develop SMART goals.   Most people agree with me – and a few even attempt to set SMART goals once in awhile – but most of the time I find that people struggle with SMART goal development (even those who truly believe in their value and actually spend time attempting to set them).

For example, I recently had someone put forth the following as a SMART goal in one of our sessions: “treat every customer with respect – starting today.”  I explained that although this is a very good idea (I certainly will never argue with treating all customers in a respectful way), it is an example of a very poor SMART goal.  That is because it is neither Specific (“respect” could mean a firm handshake to me, but it might mean offering someone coffee every time they come into the office to you) nor Measurable (I can’t measure “respect” – on the other hand, I can measure, for example, how often someone shakes a hand or offers coffee).

Because I’ve found that so many well-intentioned individuals struggle with the concept of SMART goal-setting, I thought I’d write a few observations about this and my experience of the impact of truly SMART goals on teams and organizations (along with families and friendships as well):

  1. My experience is that most people who attempt to develop SMART goals typically wind up with a combination of what we call “good ideas” and SMART goals – with good ideas normally outnumbering true SMART goals at about a 5 to 1 ratio.  Most people believe that goals like “treat the customer with respect” are SMART goals  . . . and fail to break good ideas like this one into truly SMART goals (goals like “call every client Mr. or Ms. unless otherwise instructed, beginning today” or “great every customer with a handshake and a smile”).
  2. My experience is that “grinding” good ideas into true SMART goals can do 4 things for a team: (a) help all team members to be more clear about what it is they should do before they begin doing it – a sort of “measure twice, cut once” approach to strategic and tactical planning.  This clarity can greatly reduce the number of “re-do’s” in an organization, and (b) give everyone a clearer path toward bringing good ideas into reality – SMART goals leave nothing to the imagination in terms of how to go about getting things done, (c) clarify what to say “no” to while pursuing their ideas (critical to increasing focus and decreasing time-related obstacles to making good ideas a reality), and (d) provide a better sense of when good ideas are actually brought into reality (instead of having to guess about how well a strategic plan is moving forward).
  3. Since SMART goal-setting typically takes more time and energy than good idea generation does, we recommend that leaders ask their employees to develop SMART goals only when: (a) leaders feel like they need clarity regarding what an employee is going to do (usually most important if the good idea is central to success or is going to take a lot of money to “re-do” if not done right) AND/OR (b) leaders feel as though a good idea is not being manifested quickly enough or at a level of quality that is satisfying to them (by their nature, SMART goals provide more clarity regarding how to make a good idea happen more quickly and/or occur at a higher level of quality).
  4. Having said that, if a leader is absolutely SURE that a good idea is either not important enough to grind into SMART goals OR isn’t worth bringing into reality, we normally ask that leader to consider whether or not that idea truly needs to be pursued within their organization at all (or, whether it truly is a “good” idea for their team at the present time).  We’ve observed teams wasting a lot of precious time pursuing ideas that aren’t really truly valuable to their team – which can result in lowered motivation and less time to pursue all kinds of truly good ideas.

Certainly, there are times when leaders have such a clear consensus with their employees about a good idea that SMART goal-setting is not necessary.  For example, after years of working with my associate, Brian Mistler, I have a good idea of what to expect when I ask him to write a note to a client that I feel could use some assistence with implementing an effective reward system for his team.  I don’t need to develop SMART goals for that good idea, because I’ve come to know what sort of note Brian will write .   However, we’ve found this level of consensus to be the exception rather than the rule.  Very frequently, a good amount of time, energy, and money is wasted having to “re-do” good ideas that were not ground into SMART goals.

A FINAL NOTE ON SMART GOALS: SMART goal development is, in my experience, both challenging and rewarding.  Like laying down blueprints before you build a house, it is often difficult to wait patiently as the plan develops.  However, like good blueprints, SMART goals can save a lot of heartache and confusion if done consistently well (can you imagine trying to build a home without a blueprint – nearly impossible and almost always foolish!).  In order to help people practice developing some SMART goals, we’ve developed an “Online SMART Goal Coaching System.”  For a complimentary sample of this system, click here.

Article Filed under: IV. Miscelaneous

18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Brian Mistler  |  August 31st, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic, and Time-bound.

    In my experience, if you genuinely have these 5 factors, stuff happens. I’d like to say more than that, and yet it’s that simple.

    Add to it alignment with your mission, and get your priorities strait, and the right stuff happens very quickly. Organizations get to successful implantation without the delays, confusion, and other headaches companies and individuals often deal with trying to plan and execute.

  • 2. John Spence  |  August 31st, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    I would also like to add that I have found that one of the most important factors for highly effective TEAMS — is setting clear RR&E (roles, responsibilities and expectations) — and SMART goals for the team. This clarity around the team functions and outcomes is what takes a “workgroup” and elevates them to a true High Performance Team. Unfortunately, only about 10% or less of teams ever do the work necessary to get this sort of clarity and develop effective SMART team goals.

  • 3. Stacie L. Buck  |  October 2nd, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    For years our organization has struggled to meet all of the goals on our strategic plan. Some years have been more successful than others, but often the goals that were met were not met on time and there always seemed to be at least an item or two that was completely neglected.

    This year we decided to take a new approach to strategic planning and have developed SMART goals for each of our strategic objectives. While it was challenging to develop our SMART goals, each of the members of our team now have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. I have already noted that team members are making progress toward their goals.

    After working through this process I can now honestly say that a big part of our problem in that past was that many of our objectives were too vague.

    Dr. Higely and his team has been of great assistance during this process.

    I can’t wait to see where we are 6 months from now. I am confident we will be well on our way to meeting each of our goals and on time.

    Stacie L. Buck, RHIA, CCS-P, LHRM, RCC
    President, Florida Health Information Management Association

  • 4. Brian Higley  |  October 3rd, 2007 at 7:09 pm

    Glad you enjoyed the SMART Goal-centered training, Stacie – I’m excited to watch the results!

  • 5. Jonathan  |  October 30th, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    SMART goals I feel are vital to team success and success in life. I have actually started implementing smart goals into my own relationships and into my own personal projects. Of course getting my team to agree upon a goal is easy, because it is only me on the team. At night when I lay down to go to be I think to myself, “OK what do I need to do tomorrow the next week and the next month,” so then I either create a smart goal or I review the one I have.

    If someone is reading this and is having a difficult time coming up with smart goals or how to create a smart goal for a “good idea” I have a simple way which helps me greatly. First I think ok what is the smart goal in general. For example; I am going to make a cake for my friends birthday on Saturday and it is Monday. I make that into a smart goal. The smart goal would go something like this. S-Make a chocolate cake with chocolate icing using a specific brand for the cake mix and icing. M-Have one cake mix box and icing container. A- I agree with making a cake. R- It is realistic for me to be able to create a cake. T- Have the cake made by Saturday by five o’clock.Then I would create a separate smart goal for each ingredient. I would create a smart goal for getting the eggs by a specific date, and every other ingredient I needed. Creating on general smart goal and then creating a smart goal for each different aspect of getting the goal done could be a useful tool in getting your “good idea” accomplished.

  • 6. Brian Higley  |  November 1st, 2007 at 1:21 pm


    Your scenerio above is an excellent sample of how to develop both SMART Goals and SMART sub-goals. Thank you for sharing it!

  • 7. Jessica Manemeit  |  November 20th, 2007 at 10:53 pm

    SMART goals are a very useful tool for any individual, small group or team, or large organization. I have been learning about SMART goals over the past few months. In the beginning, my role was to critique my employee’s SMART goals. Eventually I had to begin creating my own SMART goals. As I look back at the process, I am glad that I was able to do it in that order. I can certainly say that it is much easier to determine if a goal is SMART or not, then to come up with your own SMART goals. But, the more I was able to decipher between SMART goals and not so SMART goals, the easier it became to form my own SMART goals. This may be an exercise to do with a group that is new to SMART goals. Have them judge whether a goal is truly Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic, and Time bound. I believe when you are able to identify SMART goals, it will assist in the proper formation of them. I agree with Dr. Higley that it can be a very difficult and sometimes boring stage of reaching your missions, but it is well worth it once you start to see your goals become accomplished, I believe my group has experienced that feeling of SMART goal accomplishment over the past week, as they have been able to complete some of their activities. I don’t think, but I know- We couldn’t have done it without our SMART goals!

  • 8. Brian Higley  |  November 23rd, 2007 at 10:36 pm


    It’s been fun watching your team benefit from SMART Goal development – you have been a major force in making this happen. Bravo!

  • 9. Excellence Tree Journal &hellip  |  September 24th, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    […] and prioritization of the SMART Goals that you believe will help you fulfill (and track the progress of) your team’s objectives.  We […]

  • 10. Excellence Tree Journal &hellip  |  November 21st, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    […] that many skip doing this because they are not fully aware of the truly devastating impact of failing to address this critical aspect of Mission Activation.  Our team has found that failure to address this phase in a quality way is the number 1 reason why Missions are so often left un-Activated.  If your Mission seems as though it is not Activated, odds are that a major part of the problem lies within this phase.  Click here for more on how to develop truly SMART Goals. […]

  • 11. Excellence Tree Journal &&hellip  |  February 20th, 2009 at 11:31 am

    […] back).  We’ve found that helping people to discover what they love to do and create SMART Goals related to that passion is often very helpful here – and that the need to motivate someone […]

  • 12. Excellence Tree Journal &&hellip  |  February 20th, 2009 at 11:32 am

    […] Creation and prioritization of the SMART Goals that you believe will help you fulfill (and track) each of your team’s Primary Objectives.  […]

  • 13. Excellence Tree Journal &&hellip  |  February 20th, 2009 at 11:32 am

    […] specific, measurable, realistic, agreed-upon and time-bound (”SMART”) goals (or tactics) that are aligned with getting those strategies […]

  • 14. Excellence Tree Journal &&hellip  |  December 21st, 2009 at 8:04 am

    […] the difference between Objectives and SMART Goals to refresh your memory on SMART Goal development: http://www.excellenceuniversity.net/journal/61.  The difference between SMART Goals and Objectives is a critical difference, so please keep this […]

  • 15. Excellence Tree Journal &&hellip  |  December 30th, 2009 at 9:16 am

    […] NOTE: You may wish to refresh yourself on the differences between Objectives and SMART Goals by reviewing this article: http://www.excellenceuniversity.net/journal/61  […]

  • 16. Excellence Tree Journal &&hellip  |  February 24th, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    […] Phase II: Goal-set for constant connection. Expert goal-setting can be a critical way to stay connected to a mission.  So often, missions are given up on because of goals that are not set in SMART (specific, measurable, agreed-upon, realistic and time-bound) ways.  Click here for more on SMART Goals. […]

  • 17. Excellence Tree Journal &&hellip  |  September 27th, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    […] Identify methods of goal-setting that make positive outcomes and satisfaction more likely. There are many methods of ensuring increased probabilities of achievement and more satisfying experiences in life.  For example, the more specific, measurable and realistic a goal is, the more likely it is to be achieved.  For example, the goal “Become a better person” is much less specific, measurable and realistic than a goal like “Read one chapter in my favorite self-improvement book and implement 1 idea from that book every month by the 15th of each month.”   Click here for more on SMART Goal-setting. […]

  • 18. Jolie Jarrett  |  January 26th, 2020 at 2:37 pm

    Hello everyone,

    I know that it can be hard to set good SMART goals when first learning how or if you haven’t done them in a while. So, I thought I would write up a quick little guide to provide supplemental material to those who are first learning or to help refresh those who have done them before. I have had Dr. Higley as a professor before for my Memory and Cognition class and he had us make SMART goals in class. Thus, I will be using my experience from in class with him (will be listed as personal communication), the syllabus from that class which had a section on SMART goals, the STEAM training manual, and the various articles from the Excellence University Journal.

    I am positive that everyone here knows how to set goals. For example, study every day. However, SMART goals are different from the regular goals that most people are used to. First things first, SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Agreed upon, Realistic, and Time bound according to the Excellence University Journal (Higley, 2007). For the purpose of illustrating each part, we will stick to the studying everyday example. While this is a good goal that can be very beneficial, it isn’t a SMART goal since it isn’t specific, measurable, or time-bound which then makes it unrealistic and hard to agree upon. I do want to note that I will be covering each part in the order that makes the most sense to me and not the order they are listed so I apologize if that bothers you.

    Specific is straightforward. For a goal to be specific, you need to say exactly what it entails you doing (Higley, personal communication, 2019). Instead of only saying studying, we could say studying from the textbooks for Memory and Cognition. This gives us something to focus on while studying so that we aren’t wasting time trying to decide what to do. Of course, the more specific you are the better. This is because it makes the goal more measurable which I will discuss later. Location should also be included (I feel as though this isn’t as obvious as other parts of being specific, so I wanted to mention it). For example, you could study in your room. If your goal doesn’t have a specific location, then mention this while providing possible locations.

    Agreed upon is also simple. Agreed upon means that everyone who is part of this goal agrees to every part of the goal (Higley, personal communication, 2019). Say that you are studying with a friend each day in between classes and both of you decide to set up a SMART goal regarding your study time. Both of you would have to agree to the specifics of the goal since you are both involved. If you are the only one involved in the goal, then you simply must agree to each part of the goal with yourself.

    Time bound is more complicated. To my understanding, there are two parts to this. The first is how long your goal lasts while doing it (Higley, personal communication, 2019). The second is how long your goal lasts as a whole (Higley, personal communication, 2019). I know that probably doesn’t make much sense, so please bear with me. Using the studying everyday example, the first part would mean how much time each day (for example, 30 minutes every day in the evening). The second part would be the start and end dates for the goal. For example, if you were studying for a specific class you could say the start date is the first day of class and the end date is the last day of class. Alternatively, if you were a professional who is wanting to keep up to date with the latest research, you could say that there is no start and end date as you want this to be something you want to do for your entire career (and who knows the exact day they retire years in advance) or to be a lifelong goal.

    Measurable is more complicated due to it depending on other parts. Measurable essentially means that a bystander could be told your goal and be able to tell whether you have done it or not (Higley, personal communication, 2019). If your goal is specific and time bound, then a bystander would know that you did exactly what your goal said you would and that you did it for the correct amount of time. If your goal was not specific or time bound, then the bystander would be unsure whether the goal was done correctly or not. For the studying everyday example, let’s say we are studying for Memory and Cognition from the textbooks every day for 30 minutes in the evening by ourselves. A bystander who was told this could time us to make sure it was thirty minutes worth of studying and could see us studying from the textbooks for Memory and Cognition by ourselves every day (assuming they know what textbooks are required and are around every evening). Then, they could say that we truly did complete our goal. Or if we missed any part, they could say that we did not complete our goal.

    Realistic is the hardest in my opinion, especially if you are doing a goal that lasts for multiple months or longer. Realistic means that you can actually carry out every part of your goal (Higley, personal communication, 2019). For example, if you want to study for two hours every night for just Memory and Cognition, that would be unrealistic. If you wanted to study for two hours every night for 4+ classes that would be more realistic. But that is assuming that you do not have a full-time job that could take up your evenings. For this part, you would need to consider your life as a whole and whether you actually have the time, money, etc. to carry out this goal.

    After going through each part and writing out your goal, you should look back over it and carefully consider whether it truly is SMART. For example, studying every day for 30 minutes from the start of the semester to the end of the semester is closer but it is not actually a SMART goal since it doesn’t specify what you will study, where you will study, etc. However, studying for Memory and Cognition using the required textbooks by oneself for 30 minutes every day in the evening in one’s bedroom from the first day of the semester until the last day of the semester would be a SMART goal (assuming it is realistic for one’s life). As you carry out this goal, you should consistently reevaluate it to make sure that it is still realistic and achievable. If you find that you can no longer study every day due to school or work, then you can adjust the goal to four times a week or whatever is realistic for you.

    Hope this helped everyone. If I missed anything or anyone has any questions, then please let me know. Bonne chance à tous!

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to comments RSS Feed

Leave a Comment


Required, hidden

Some HTML allowed:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

EBSS - Execution Boost Support System

Recent Articles


April 2024

Article Topics

Blog Contributors

CACE - Results Preview