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Are SMART Objectives Really Smart?

Updated on November 26, 2015

How to Set Behavioural Objectives

There are some training models that have stood the test of time and as such have secured a place in our library of jargon. Does this mean that they are sacred? It seems as if most people are not willing to question or challenge these concepts even if they don’t seem effective at times.

Many use the SMART method to set objectives and many find it rather cumbersome. This is because there is a tendency to get tied up in the theoretical process rather than clearly defining the intended end-result. I have worked with many Human Resources Consultants, Managers, and Trainers and almost every one of them has been taught, or has taught the concept of SMART Objectives. I have however come across very few who can quickly and easily set an effective objective.

What is an Objective?

An objective is an intent communicated by a statement of what the person will be doing when they have successfully completed the objective. In other words, it is a description of the behaviour we want the person to demonstrate. When the element of clearly defined behaviour is lacking in an objective, the expectations are confusing, and it’s almost impossible to evaluate whether it’s been successfully achieved.

A more simple and effective way of setting objectives is to focus on the concept of observable behaviour.

A Behavioural Objective has Three Components

Behaviour: The observable behaviour.

Standards: How well the person must perform the behaviour.

Conditions: The conditions under which the person must be exhibiting the behaviour. The timing, frequency, restraints, circumstances, etc.

Each objective must contain a Behaviour, and wherever appropriate, either or both Standards and Conditions.

Behaviour - Is It Observable?

A maningfully stated objective is one that succeeds in communicating your intent. There are however many words that are open to a wide range of interpretation. What do you really mean when you state in an objective that you want someone to understand, or fully appreciate, or know how to do something? It is very important to make your intention explicit by describing what the person will actually be doing when demonstrating that he or she understands or appreciates, etc. In other words, you need to describe ‘What the behaviour looks like’.

For example, instead of ‘Update your digital knowledge’, it would be far more effective to say, ‘Watch and summarise the contents of the Click programme on BBC1’. But this in itself is still not an effective objective.


Once you have described what it is you want the person to be able to do, you can increase the ability of an objective by telling the person how well you want them to be able to do it. If you can specify at least the minimum acceptable performance for each objective, you will have a standard against which to measure the results. One of the most obvious ways is to specify a time limit where one is appropriate. Other appropriate standards might include, minimum number(obtaining at least three examples from their team);number of correct attempts(getting at least seven correct out of the list of ten); quality required(calculations must be accurate to at least three significant figures), etc. For example, ‘Watch and summarise in one-thousand words, the contents of the Click programme on BBC1, by the end of the week’.

It is not always possible to specify a standard with as much detail as you would like, but this should not prevent you from trying to communicate, as fully as possible, the intention required.


Simply stating the Behaviour and the Standards may not be enough to prevent misunderstanding. Are there any important procedures that must be followed? Will guidelines be provided? Under which circumstances must the behaviour be applied? The answer to each of these questions will make a difference in the interpretation of the objective. What will the person be allowed to use, be provided with, be denied, etc.? Consider the givens, restrictions, circumstances, and frequency which will enable you to describe the Conditions, for example, ‘Given a list of…’ or ‘In front of a prospective customer…’ or ‘Referring to the policy guidelines…

Keep it Simple

To avoid getting side-tracked by the theory (as most do with SMART objectives), it is important to keep the process simple. Simply identify the observable behaviour and then add any Conditions and Standards that will make the Behaviour crystal clear and measurable. Sometimes, the distinction between Conditions and Standards can be unclear and this does not matter. As long as the intent is clearly communicated describing a proposed change, what the person will be doing when they have successfully completed the objective, how well they will be doing it, and under what conditions, the objective will achieve its purpose.

For example, ‘Compile fifty phone numbers of potential customers from the BestData list that don’t appear on our records by the end of this week’.


Behavioural objectives make the concept of measurement quick and effective. Did the person produce a one-thousand word summary of the BBC1 Click programme by the end of the week? Or, did the person compile fifty phone numbers of potential customers from the BestData list that don’t appear on their records by the end of the week? Yes? - objective achieved. No? - objective not achieved.

Is it Smart?

If you are still determined to hang on the SMART Paradigm, rest assured that a Behavioural Objective will always be SMART. Put it to the test. Try to set an objective the easy way and then measure it against the SMART model.

SPECIFIC - An observable Behaviour will always be specific.

MEASURABLE - An observable Behaviour with Standards and Conditions lists a detailed outcome and will therefore always be measurable.

AGREED - Unless objectives are discussed and agreement gained, there will be little commitment to achieve them. This however really refers to the process of communicating the objective and not to the way it is written.

REALISTIC - The Behaviour, Conditions and Standards, force you to assess the relevance and practicality of the objective and will automatically be realistic.

TIME RELATED - One of the Standards.

SMART is only one of many business tools and certainly not a one-size-fits-all method. Look for, and encourage, other effective techniques that fit your purpose.

A Paradigm Shift

In this dynamic age of fast-changing technology and challenging economic times, it is important to evaluate the familiar. It makes sense to check assumptions, models, and methods to find easier, quicker, and often more effective ways of achieving results.


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