How to utilize SMART goals for better project management

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As a project manager or leader, helping your teams achieve better results and work more efficiently is key. A good set of goals is one of the best tools for motivating teams and keeping them on track.

And crafting goals end up being a significant part of project management. A good project management plan will include some high-level goals for the project, and every level deeper into project execution typically contains its own more specific goals.

The only problem? Writing good goals is hard. Really, really hard.

Creating strong goals that communicate clearly and help drive results is notoriously difficult. Using the SMART goals framework is one strategic approach that can help to bring clarity to the goal-setting process and drive results for your teams.

In this article, you’ll learn more about SMART goals and how they can help you improve your project management efforts.

What does SMART stand for?

SMART goals were first introduced in a paper by George T. Doran published in a 1981 issue of Management Review. Doran proposed that management objectives should be: 

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Assignable

  • Realistic

  • Time-related or time-bound

In modern use, the A is often updated to achievable or attainable and the R is used to mean relevant.

While you’ll find some variation in usage, the SMART framework remains a strategic and effective way of setting better goals.

SMART goals aren’t exactly a project management methodology but are instead more of a framework. Whichever of the many different goal-setting methodologies you’re using, the SMART framework will help you be clearer and more successful in goal-setting.

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Specificity is vitally important throughout project management, including in SMART goal-setting. Here, “specific” refers to the level of detail or granularity of the goal you’re crafting. Think about the what, the why, and the who, and be as specific with each as you can.

Be as precise as possible when crafting a goal, giving as much detail as space and context will allow about what your goal is trying to achieve.

One important note: SMART goals aren’t just for formal project management goals. You can use SMART goal strategies at multiple planning levels within project management (including goals, objectives, projects, milestones, and activities).

Look at how focusing on a specific goal or objective might make communication clearer in three common project management events:

  • Goals: Deliver a full set of 100 complete, finalized, and client-approved illustrations to the client by the project completion date.

  • Milestones: Have a complete set of sketches sent to the client for approval by May 1.

  • Activities: Create one sketch per week – every week in Q1 – and gain internal approval.

Those are a few examples in a creative agency context. As we continue, we’ll look closely at a specific goal, highlighting how it might change to demonstrate a particular piece of the SMART criteria.

Let’s say you’re project-managing a team where one or more team members need to beef up their analytics skills. Specifically, you’ve narrowed things down to getting better at using Google Analytics.

Here’s what a specific SMART goal might look like:

SMART: Complete the Google Analytics course and become certified within one month.

NOT SMART: Get better at tracking and analyzing data analytics. 

This isn’t specific enough: How should you improve? What kind of data analytics? Which tool? How much time should you dedicate to this?


Once your goal is sufficiently specific, next up is making sure there is some mechanism by which you can measure progress toward or completion of the goal. Both you and your project team members should be able to know whether a goal has been met.

Usually, you’ll want to indicate how the goal can be measured within the wording of the goal itself.

SMART: Complete the Google Analytics course and become certified within one month. Use your new skills to complete four analytics-dependent tasks within two months.

Here, there are at least three measurable steps:

  • Whether someone has completed the course

  • Whether someone has gotten certified

  • Whether someone has completed four appropriate tasks within two months

NOT SMART: Complete the Google Analytics course and start using your new skills to complete initiatives. 

While you can measure whether someone has completed the course, nothing else here is measurable. How will you know they used their skills on initiatives? How many initiatives must they complete?


An achievable goal is one that can realistically be completed according to its own terms and in the context of the project. In an assembly line environment, you might set a goal that exceeds a worker’s average capacity by 5%, 10%, or even 15%. Each of these might be reasonable.

But you’d never set a goal that all employees will triple their output by next week. No one could meet it — it’s not achievable.

SMART: Complete the Google Analytics course and become certified within one month, then complete four analytics-dependent deliverables with 90% accuracy within two months.

This is all hypothetical, of course, but assuming that adding four such tasks and reaching 90% accuracy is reasonable for an employee in this role, this would be a highly achievable goal.

NOT SMART: Complete the Google Analytics course and become a top 1% performer within three months, delivering 25 analytics-dependent tasks per week.

Unless you literally work on Google's product education team, it’s not reasonable to expect employees completing basic certification to reach the top 1% within three months. And adding 25 new analytics tasks weekly isn’t likely realistic.


A SMART goal must also be relevant, for both the project and the business. You won’t typically need to adjust the wording to a SMART goal to make it relevant; rather, relevance is usually externally defined or is simply defined by applying common sense.

Whether a goal is relevant is highly contextual. A goal of sending task completion notifications, for example, seems relevant in most contexts. But a goal specifying that those completions take place via email (or Slack or Teams or carrier pigeon) is only relevant if the team or business is using the specified communication tool.

SMART: Analysts and marketing leads must complete the Google Analytics course and become certified within one month, then complete four analytics-dependent tasks with 90% accuracy within two months.

NOT SMART: Teach all team members how to use Google Analytics. 

It's likely that not every member of a team will need to use this tool. So the goal becomes irrelevant as it creates unnecessary work and brings no additional value.


This one’s simple: does your goal indicate a timeframe? If not, it isn’t time-bound (and almost certainly will never get completed).

SMART: Analysts and marketing leads must complete the Google Analytics course and become certified within one month, then complete four analytics-dependent tasks with 90% accuracy within two months.

NOT SMART: Analysts and marketing leads must complete the Google Analytics course, become certified, and start completing analytics-dependent tasks.

This goal doesn’t set a timeline for completing the course or applying these new skills to the job, which leaves managers and employees without a way to monitor progress and set goals. 

Real-life examples of SMART project management

So what do SMART goals look like in real-world project management? Let’s workshop it with three real-life project management scenarios, complete with examples of SMART goals for each.

1. Increase and improve teamwide communication

Every project manager knows the frustration of trying to lead a team that just isn’t communicating well — it’s probably the most common problem PMs face.

To try to get communication problems under control, a PM might call a meeting and explain a new team goal, something along the lines of “increase and improve teamwide communication.”

Now, this is certainly something to strive for, but it’s not a SMART goal — yet. It’s missing many required attributes that would make it one. So let’s think about how to formulate a SMART goal on this topic.

  • S: The primary goal is to increase team communication, but you must get more specific. How will team communication work and through which channels? Should team members send Slack messages at task completion? To whom? How quickly?

  • M: Slack data can be viewed, and weekly Zoom meeting times can be measured as well. These metrics can show the frequency of communication, which is thus measurable. (They can’t measure the quality of the communication, though, so they aren’t foolproof.)

  • A: If your goal is both specific and measurable, it’s likely achievable too. Just make sure your goal doesn’t overburden team members: if they feel it’s too time-consuming, they might feel it’s not achievable.

  • R: A relevant communication goal connects to the actual problem. If the problem is not enough task-related communication, then achieving this goal would create a better workflow and overall communication. If the problem is that Larry is rude on Slack and ignores his email, then this might not be the most relevant goal.

  • T: This goal targets a specific, simple change in behavior that’s meant to be ongoing. You could include “for the duration of the project” if you want a strict time-bound limiter. Other goals that aren’t addressing ongoing, permanent changes to behavior should be given a time-related context (e.g., “for the next three months”).

So, our SMART version of this goal might look like this:

“For the duration of the project, team members will send task completion messages to the next person via the relevant Slack channel within five minutes of completing their tasks. The project manager will review the number of messages sent to measure progress toward this goal.”

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2. Reduce staff meeting time

Speaking of meetings, another common complaint on project teams is that they spend so much time in meetings that they can’t get their work done.

Reducing staff meeting time is another worthy objective, but it isn’t SMART on its own. Let’s imagine that weekly Zoom team meetings are really dragging on, often lasting two to three hours.

The project manager knows this is too long, so she starts formulating a SMART goal to reduce the time spent.

S: “Have shorter meetings” isn’t specific. “Cut total team meeting time in half” is.

M: Reducing the meeting to half the time is a measurable action step: meeting length data is available via Zoom.

A: You’ll need to identify what to cut, but certainly your weekly meetings shouldn’t last three hours. Cutting them in half should be achievable.

R: If teams are wasting time or don’t have enough time to complete project goals, shortening meetings is highly relevant to broader business goals.

T: Change won’t happen overnight, so be sure to include a timetable for when the goal needs to be met. Somewhere between three weeks and three months should be doable.

So, for this SMART goal, you might end up with something like this:

“By [3 months from now], the average weekly Zoom meeting length will be 90 minutes or lower (as measured by Zoom data).”

That’s it: the achievability and relevancy don’t need to be spelled out here, though you’d want to outline elsewhere the steps to get those meetings shorter.

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3. Deliver projects on time

Delivering projects on time (and within budget) is the ultimate goal of every successful project manager. But of course, you can’t just slap a “deliver projects on time” goal onto your project and coast from there.

If on-time delivery is in danger, make sure you create a smarter goal around deadline management.

S: How many projects must be completed? How are “on time” and “within budget” defined?

M: Weekly checks and meetings are where you’ll measure team progress on both fronts. Between meetings, you can keep tabs on progress using your chosen project management tool. (And if you’re reporting to stakeholders, you’ll get plenty of measurable feedback there too.)

A: If this goal isn’t achievable, you have larger-scale project scope issues to address. If completing project deliverables on time doesn’t seem achievable, your project success is under threat.

R: Your clients expect on-time delivery, so this goal is certainly relevant.

T: Of course, you want your team to be on time and on budget forever, but to keep goals achievable and realistic, set a time limit (e.g., the fiscal year).

Here’s what this goal might look like:

“For the fiscal year, deliver 98% of projects and project deliverables on time and within budget as measured by weekly checks in our project management software.”

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