What are smart goals in project management?

In November 1981, the prestigious Management Review magazine published an article that would change the way project managers and others planned their work.

Written by George T. Doran, it was titled There's a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management's Goals and Objectives. It discussed the importance of setting goals in advance, as well as the difficulties in clarifying them.

The solution offered was to be SMART. That is, to set goals that are Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-bound.

This has been developed over the years. Today, it is usually taken to mean: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

It isn’t just clever word-play. Instead, it uses human psychology effectively. As Edwin Locke has written: “Any adequate theory of task motivation must take account of the individual's conscious goals and intentions.”

For example, think of the difference between saying “I will save money”, and “I will save INR 10000 every year for the next ten years”. The second statement is clearly more action-oriented, with a specific picture of what needs to be done, and by when.

Moreover, results from studies on the effects of goal setting on performance showed that 90% of the time, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals, ‘do your best’ goals or no goals.

With that in mind, let’s break down each component of the SMART set-up when it comes to project management.


In this step, you have to be as clear as you can about what it is that you and your team are setting out to achieve.

It can help to ask the 5 Ws: who, what, why, where, and which. Who will be involved, what is the target, why is it to be achieved, where will the work happen, and which steps or resources are necessary?

Doing this will give you a clear and detailed picture of the task ahead. It will clarify doubts and make sure that everyone is on the same page. This itself can be a huge step forward.

For example, a vague goal can be: “Improve site traffic”. But a specific one is: “Improve site traffic by 125% with the help of the remote marketing team in order to increase conversions.” See the difference that makes?


This step relates to the all-important aspect of metrics. Without examining metrics on a regular basis, your project can spiral out of control, and you may not have a way to check on its progress.

Some common examples of metrics can be the number of tasks completed per week, the time spent on the project, and the percentage of the overall project that has been completed.

Another great advantage of deciding measurement standards in advance is that the entire team is aware of the time and resources that they have. Their work can then proceed efficiently, with the tight deadlines and keeping to expectations.

Setting Key Performance Indicators for employees is a part of this step, as well as using time-tracking and activity monitoring tools.


In this step, project managers should check whether the goal that has been specified is achievable in real-world conditions.

For example, the task may be to construct a bridge across two banks of a river. But if one side has soft soil that does not allow construction, the target may not be achievable.

There can be other constraints, too. Perhaps there’s a shortage of resources or of budgets. Or maybe the timeline is too optimistic.

Framing the goal in this way allows project managers to see what is realistically possible. Flagging concerns at an early stage can lead to an appropriate reduction in scope or greater budgets and resources.

Experienced project managers can often judge attainability by examining past projects to see what can be done and what cannot.


With all the tasks that are assigned to project managers, one key consideration should be whether these are aligned with overall business objectives or not.

After all, the success of a project is also tied to how it fits into the organization’s overall focus and strategy. There’s no point taking on a task that the company is not suited for.

It could also be that under current circumstances, resources are tied up with several other projects. In this case, the relevance of taking on another project should be scrutinized in terms of importance.

There is also another dimension of relevance. The main project can be broken down into a series of smaller tasks, and each one can be judged in light of how relevant it is to the overall goal.

Doing this will save time and resources, and keep the entire team focused only on what is necessary.


This is a critical aspect of goal-setting. After all, as the saying goes, “goals are dreams with deadlines.” Without a deadline, it just remains a dream and not an achievement.

For project managers, time is a critical aspect of any task. Experience and a proper examination of the project are required to properly estimate the time needed for completion.

For example, to complete a project at the desired time, more resources in terms of people or technology could be required. The sooner this is flagged and estimated, the better.

Apart from the overall time taken to reach the target, setting deadlines is also extremely important when it comes to breaking it down into sub-goals. When each such goal is reached on time, the entire project can move forward smoothly to completion.

Here’s another small example to sum up the above and to make it clearer.

Goal: Get 25% of trial users on a mobile app to pay for a monthly subscription.

Specific: Connect only with people currently using the app. Provide a free demo of benefits. Send emails to remind them of offers.

Measurable: Track those who subscribe to check for cancellation. Calculate new subscriptions every week. Assign a clear number of emails to be sent out.

Attainable: Previous app designs show that 25% is an attainable target. Keep designers and content creators briefed on the tasks and deadlines.

Relevant: The necessary resources, talent, and technology are available in the organization for this task.

Time-bound: Keep an expectation of 21 days to reach the target. Divide this into weekly sub-goals of tracking and drip email campaigns.

In this way, it’s by keeping these five elements in mind during the planning stages that project managers are able to successfully implement their work.

What’s more, managers will also be able to keep senior management in the loop, as well as address the expectations of all stakeholders. Sounds like a SMART plan for success.

Related FAQs

1) What are Project Objectives in Project Management?
2) What Is a Deliverable in Project Management?