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Objectify This: A Brief History of SMART Criteria

If you’ve taken a management class or read a productivity blog or two, you’ve probably run into the idea of writing SMART objectives. SMART most commonly stands for “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.”

01-21 NN Sunrise 2

SMART Basics. We want to write clear, helpful objectives. We should state exactly what we decided to do (Specific), and by when (Time-Bound). We want achieving the objective to be in the realm of possibility (Achievable), not to mention something that matters (is Relevant) to our job or life. Plus, we should be able to tell whether we’ve reached the objective or not (Measurable).

That’s easy enough.

Variations. Different authors have made SMART stand for a host of other terms.  Wikipedia’s article on SMART criteria includes a table showing 3 to 13 additional terms in use for each letter in the acronym. Some have expanded the mnemonic to “SMARTER,” by adding two additional terms, “Evaluate” and “Reevaluate,” which also have variants.

If you wanted to play poetry magnets with the variations in terms, you could end up with a variety of overlapping and potentially redundant lists.

The Original “SMART.” So what’s the original list? “SMART” first appeared in an article by George T. Doran in 1981. It was about writing management objectives (see Table 1). As a corporate planner, he developed the SMART acronym, and he wrote about it to help managers write better goals and objectives.

Table 1. Variations in SMART & SMARTER Criteria 

 

Doran’s Original Today’s Most Common A Few Variations 
Specific
Measurable
Assignable
Realistic
Time-Related
Specific
Measurable
Achievable
Relevant
Time-Bound
Simple
Motivational
Ambitious
Resonant
Tangible
Evaluate
Reevaluate
Excitable (How does an objective act when it’s excited?)
Reaching

 

Because Doran was writing about management objectives, he suggested assigning them to someone. Today, people often use these criteria for writing their own objectives, so it makes sense to change “Assignable” to “Achievable.” Once we have “Achievable,” then we no longer need “Realistic,” so that is often replaced by “Relevant.”

From Shorthand Back to SMART. To me, “Specific” could easily refer to a clear description with measures and a due date. After that, you’d want “Realistic”—not too hard, plus, it makes sense in the context. But we can map my “shorthand” right back to SMART objectives:

  • Specific = a clear description
  • Measurable = how we’ll know we met the objective
  • Achievable = possible (not too hard)
  • Relevant = it makes sense in our context; it matters to me (or to us)
  • Time-Bound = by when: a due date

When I first noticed that the SMART criteria changed often with different authors, I was a little uncomfortable with the overlapping and not always compatible terms in use.

However, despite the proliferation of criteria to fit the acronym, what we want is a way to write objectives so that we can easily tell what they mean, whether they fit the circumstances, and when they’ve been achieved. If we do that, then we can use them as part of a motivating look forward.

Resources

Wikipedia | SMART criteria

Kitchen Magnets | Poetry Magnets

Article | Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management Review, 70(11), 35-36. Not easily available online.

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  • Tony Moore

    Being a Harless and Gilbert devotee, I prefer focusing on accomplishments before behavior (“doing”). What am I going to produce that adds value to my my clients, my company, or my project. Given that context, then today’s most common model (including your additions) works for me.

    • jeannefarrington

      Yes! To accomplishments before behavior. I wrote this post after running into any number of people writing about SMART goals…
      A. As if they invented the whole idea
      B. With any number of different meanings

      So I went on a search to find the original article… and I couldn’t help posting some of the odd variations.
      Seriously, “excitable”? Too anthropomorphic for me.