How to write SMART goals and why it's good for you (and your team)
Working on innovative and nascent projects can be a very exciting time for you and the company at large. Whether it’s the launch of a new product, the shifting of organizational structures, or the merger of two entities, something new and novel can shake things up in the best of ways.
But when an issue arises for those types of projects that are so grand in scope that it can be difficult to pinpoint where to even begin. While certain projects might have some basic guidelines that you can follow, the vast majority of these new projects will likely have no defining principle on how to properly tackle the task.
While sounding insurmountable, projects like these can actually be executed through a relatively simple framework that can help ground your project into a fully manageable goal: a framework known as SMART Goals.
The Importance of the SMART Goals Framework
SMART Goals are a relatively popular management tool that can help you properly distinguish different key elements of a project that can better give you perspective on the entirety of the task at hand. Through this five-step tool, you can better align yourself and your team on what to expect out of your project, and how to track it, as well as identify elements that best keep your project on track.
For the purposes of this article, we can better illustrate the concepts of the SMART Goals framework through an actual business case scenario. In this case, imagine you are working for a pharmaceutical company that specializes in primary care medicines. You’ve recently joined the company as one of the managers for sales and marketing. As part of your laundry list of tasks, you’ve been put into a team that’s been assigned to plan and execute the introduction of a new drug to the market.
While the task might seem daunting, it’s definitely manageable as long as you properly outline the different factors in the SMART Goals framework, starting from S all the way to T. Also, once you get familiar with SMART goals, you can begin to use them for almost any project or task you have on hand.
The Essential SMART Goals
SMART Goals are extremely useful for how intuitive the framework becomes once you begin using it. Essentially an acronym for all the steps that can help round out your project, SMART goals stand for Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
As part of our guide on this framework, we will utilize the business case introduced in the previous section to better give a realistic example of how SMART goals can help you and your team better manage the task at hand.
1 - Specific
The first and arguably most important SMART goal step starts off with the first letter in the framework, S, which stands for Specific. In this step, it’s important to properly understand what is being asked to better understand the entirety of the scope of work being asked of you.
Being specific in a goal is absolutely key in honing not just your and your team’s focus on priorities but also where you should allocate your limited resources to. Being specific in your goal for your project also helps you retain accountability for whatever it is you’re outlined to do and avoid splitting your energies into aspects of the project that might be tangential but not necessary for the main purposes of the task.
In the new drug launch case above, it’s important to outline exactly what is being asked. While “manage a new drug launch” might sound specific enough to new managers, it’s incredibly helpful to specify what aspects of the launch you will be managing. In pharmaceuticals, new product launches normally follow many different steps, from clinical trials all the way to submissions to the specific local regulatory board.
In properly outlining this project towards the SMART goal framework, you can properly get a better idea of what stage you need to have an active hand in as well as if there were already any prior developments in the product’s development.
With respect to the business case we’ve established, for the succeeding steps, we will assume that the “specific” aspect of our goal is that we need to ensure market entry by submitting the proper documentation of the drug’s clinical trial to the respective health regulatory boards in order to get drug indication for medical use (a common step in the pharmaceutical industry as a whole).
2 - Measurable
The next SMART item to consider when utilizing the framework is the aspect of “measurability” in your task. With any project you’re about to undertake, understanding the proper metrics to use in measuring progress and success can help you find ways not only to see if the steps you take are effective but also to find areas where you and your team can course correct.
In our example of the pharmaceutical drug introduction to the market, since we are focused on the specific task of getting the proper documentation sent to the approving regulatory boards, it’s important to set the proper metrics and milestones that can better indicate whether your task is on track.
Since this falls into the approval process of drug development, the best “measurement” for this would simply be the time it takes to gain approval. Many pharmaceutical companies aim for a 6-month listing of the drug to the market once they gain what is known as a “Notice of Compliance” or NOC, which indicates that your company’s drug is approved for use based on your clinical trial documentation.
Additional metrics for this would include how fast you can return to any comments the regulatory board may have regarding your submission as well as how quickly you can submit the initial documents in the first place. Without proper metrics, you won’t be able to ideally monitor how well you are progressing and may end up with unneeded crunch times and delays.
Similar to what we did in the “Specific” section, the “Measurable” part of our framework in regards to this case will be a 6-month listing to the market once you and your team receive notice of compliance, as well as no more than a week to return to the regulatory board for any comments and edits needed.
3 - Attainable/Achievable
After ensuring that your task is specific and measurable, you might be wondering what else you might need to ensure that your project has a proper goal framework in mind. Here it’s important to note that you need to cover all the 5 letters in the framework before even setting out to do the task to avoid any unnecessarily spent energy.
The “A” in the SMART framework is a great example of the almost non-linear approach you should be taking with this planning tool. The “A” stands for Attainable (or achievable) and remains one of the most standard checks you’ll need to do to ensure you don’t waste your own or your team’s time.
Before undertaking any project, you must properly survey the current environment to see if there are any obstacles that can hinder your progress so you can properly set goals that you can achieve.
In the previously mentioned section of “measurable”, we’ve stated that one of our measurable goals is to have market introduction within 6 months of Notice of Compliance. As a manager and business project owner, you need to ensure that the 6 months measurable goal you’ve set is within reason and doable given your current resources.
If you set your goal to be introducing the drug to the market within 6 months once you get a notice of compliance, you need to ensure that there are no other steps, either internally or externally, that can potentially go beyond your 6-month time period goal. Standard procedural maneuvering is expected, but if you have a post-compliance review that lasts longer than 5 months, then your 6-month goal begins to start looking a little “unachievable”.
For our example once again, if there are no hard rules that will hinder your progress towards your 6-month goal (or other measurable goals such as your 1-week review process), then you can ascertain that your project goal is attainable/achievable.
4 - Relevant
Similar to our Achievable framework step, it’s important to review the different dimensions and outcomes of your project to ensure that it remains relevant to all stakeholders involved. That’s where the “R” in the SMART framework comes in. As with any important undertaking, it may seem obvious that project managers and process owners should always ensure that the task/goal they are pursuing is relevant either to them, the team, the organization, or all of the above.
Yet, more often than not, people tend to take on work that ultimately means little to the task at large. Part of this can be chalked up to individuals who aim to cover as much ground as they can, but given tight deadlines and limited resources, it’s important to ensure that the tasks and goals you set for yourself are relevant to the business at large.
Working off our case where we’ve set specific, measurable, and attainable goals, it’s important to review whether all we are doing is relevant to business objectives. So far, it seems that every aspect is relevant to ensuring fast and efficient market execution of a new product.
But if an additional goal was included, such as how often your clinical trial is referenced by peer journal reviewers, then you’ll need to revisit if this goal is ultimately aligned with your business objectives. While having a reputable clinical trial is good, the amount of references towards the work at large doesn’t necessarily correlate with its accuracy. Pharmaceutical companies can utilize their own internally funded clinical trials that won’t get widespread recognition but still be relevant enough for drug market indications.
As such, the current set of goals is important to be set as something that is ultimately relevant to the “big picture”. This may seem vague at first, but it also allows room for you to be flexible in how your specific project can contribute to the business plan objectives at large.
5 - Time-bound
Lastly, one of the most overlooked and often unfollowed pieces of planning metrics is the aspect of being time-bound, our final “T” in the SMART framework. You might have all the other aspects of your project set from S to R, but without a proper schedule in place, you risk not having an organized schedule to manage all the different tasks that are required to complete it.
Some projects might just need simple scheduling, such as a start and end date, but more often than not you’ll need to have a proper chart to map out when certain things should be managed and when deliverables are to be expected.
But as you’ve laid out the rest of the framework previously, setting a realistic and achievable schedule is likely to have fallen in parallel while mapping out the different aspects of your project. The most useful tip to have with any time-bound project is to budget additional “slack” time for adjustments that are needed with any complex and multifaceted task.
For our business case, the last step is to set dates for project completion. While you might think the 6-month market introduction after our notice of compliance counts, you can also set the full completion of the project towards the end of the year to better account for any schedule changes as well as post-project analysis to see where you and your team could improve.
The SMART framework can be an incredible tool to help you plan out your project without overly burdening you with too much planning. Ensure you have the right foundations through this tool and you’ll likely have a better trajectory moving forward.