How to set Smart Objectives

Setting Smart Project Objectives – An Example

All projects benefit from having crystal clear objectives. However, no matter how obvious this may seem they are often far from clear or even plain wrong.  ‘SMART objectives’ tries to help with this question but in the world of projects this can be extended even more.

This may sound obvious but it is a really common mistake:

We see many projects every year.  One of our first questions is always “what are your objectives behind this project?” Often, people say things like “to deliver a new computer system”,  or “to deliver it by Xmas” etc.  While these statements may be true, they are not the objectives of the project.  The first statement simply describes the deliverable (or ‘solution’) and the second is either a target, constraint or both.  Despite this, it is surprising how many times this is what we hear.

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What’s the difference between goals and objectives?

Every project benefits from having a clear goal statement, but goals and objectives are not the same. Goals do not have to be ‘smart‘ but they do need to be clear.  A project goal statement is not a mission statement; it must never be a paragraph. Good goal statements are very succinct, often aspirational and have clear meaning but they are usually much broader statements than objectives.  Consider this: there is a world of difference between having the goal of “achieve best in class order fulfillment” to “deliver an improved order fulfillment (IT) system”. Ask any business leader with the same priority and it is clear which one they would chose.

Whenever possible, objectives should be smart and should describe achievements that will contribute towards the goal in a very specific way. I once worked with a large project-based business who developed a very clear single goal: “better estimates for bigger projects”. It was a perfect goal statement but it was not smart.  However, over time a series of smart objectives (which people had confidence would deliver the goal) were defined and agreed. Ultimately they were achieved in a very measurable way. Not agreeing these with the key stakeholders is a major single reason why projects often fail.

So what should goals and objectives convey?

A project should have a single clear goal statement and objectives that represent specifically and clearly what the owner or sponsor wishes to achieve through the project.  Using a very simple example, if a business aim is to ‘improve sales’ and the strategy to achieve this includes a project to deploy new technologies (e.g. web-based systems), the goal of the project is not ‘to deploy a new system’. It could be ‘to improve sales of ….. in specific markets ….. or in specific consumer groups’. The system is simply a deliverable of the project or part of the solution that is being chosen to contribute towards or enable the project goal.

Additionally, objectives (important to the sponsor) may also relate to the problem(s) you are trying to solve, not the solution itself.  The solution is just the solution – it is not the objective of the project.

A number of (smart) objectives could then also be agreed that specifically support the project goal.  For example, objectives could include:

  • to improve conversion rates from enquiries into sales by x %
  • to increase market share among …….
  • to improve customer retention rates (by some factor)
  • to retain existing customer bases.

The agreed objectives will then lead to a series of actions but the actions are never the objectives. Mixing up actions, deliverables and objectives incorrectly is the most common issue we see.

This is an absolute must:

The objectives and the strategy to achieve them should be formally agreed by all key stakeholders and must never be assumed by anyone involved in the project. Failing to do this is another major reason why projects fail.

Why is the above important?

That’s a really simple question to answer.

  1. No person should work on the project without knowing in crystal clear terms: a) why the project is being done and b) what the objectives of the project are.  If, in the minds of many, the objective is simply ‘to deliver a new system’, that’s exactly what you will get. Will it contribute towards an increase in sales in the way the project owner expects? Very probably not.
  2. Having projects that are clearly defined around the goal and objectives is priceless in any business but from the large volume of evidence we see it often does not happen. Also, the lack of following the principles described in this post is the biggest single reason that projects which are expected to, do not actually support strategic business aims.

So what is SMART?

Smart is simply a way of taking the above further and ensuring that all objectives are clear, appropriate, fundamentally valid and useful.

Specific / Strategic:

  • All objectives (not just in projects) should be crystal clear and specific and must reflect the goal of the business owner/sponsor and project.

Measurable:

  • It should be measurable and clear when you have achieved it or not (e.g. increased sales).

Achievable:

  • This is crucial. They must be agreed and committed to by the various key stakeholders of the project.

Realistic:

  • There is little point in having objectives that are beyond your need, capability or budget.

Time-bound:

  • And finally, where relevant, they must be achievable within required time-lines etc.

 

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