by kent macdonald

Using SMART Objectives

PM Pointers

Using SMART Objectives
Using SMART Objectives

For years project managers have measured project success based on three criteria: was it on time, was it within budget, and did it deliver the agreed upon scope? This definition of objectives being met is so widespread that the Standish Group has even used those criteria as the basis for its CHAOS Study on Project Management. Unfortunately these criteria are limited in so far as measuring project success and can be misleading.

My friend, co-author, and ProjectConnections contributor Niel Nickolaisen shared the story of a 14-month, $27 million ERP project that was on time, on budget, delivered all the agreed upon scope, but was considered a complete failure. The project did not add features that helped the organisation build and maintain a sustainable competitive advantage. The team and the sponsors thought that budget, cost, and scope were appropriate measures of success, when in reality they should have focused on whether what they were doing would help them achieve their business objectives.

Niel would have been well served by having SMART business objectives to refer back to when making decisions on that project. You may be familiar with the SMART acronym. There are a couple of different ways to describe it, depending on what characteristics you wish to stress. I prefer the following selection of words: Specific, Measurable, Agreed-Upon, Realistic, and Time-Framed.

Specific - Do you have an actual, concrete way of knowing when you have reached your objective and hence were successful?

Measurable - One way to get a concrete way of knowing that you were successful is to have a metric that you can look at it to see progress.

Agreed-Upon - Other people may use different words for the A, but I think this one is the most important. Objectives are not nearly as powerful or useful if all members of the team do not agree that they are important.

Realistic - You are setting yourself up for failure if you set an objective that is impossible to reach. You should stretch a little, but you should not set up an objective that you have no hope of meeting.

Time-Framed - Identify when you are going to reach the objective.

Things I encourage teams to remember when working with objectives that line up with the SMART acronym are the following:
  • Identify the metric used to track progress
  • Know what the baseline for that metric is – where are you starting from?
  • Know your target value for that metric – what value do you expect to reach when you are successful?
  • When are you expecting to reach that target? Consider that you may need to allow some time after the project has been implemented before you can get a useful measure of success.
  • Do you have a plan for how to get the measure? You'll want to consider this, because it could impact the scope of your project.


The one thing that the SMART acronym does not address is the perspective of the objective. Project-specific objectives may be convenient to define but they are not very meaningful. Meeting a certain cost, time, and scope could easily be seen as project-specific objectives. Projects are generally undertaken to implement some form of change in the business, often implementing some part of the organisational strategy. Since the project is intended to help implement the strategy, the measure of success should be based on how the business is aided. The best way to measure that is to measure how the project contributes to business objectives.

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Issue 29


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