Using SMART Criteria To Improve Your Project Management

By Chelsea Williams
Senior Copywriter
Feb 21 2024 read

Starting a project is like setting out on a voyage. It’s daunting, but you begin with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. But over time, your motivation can wane. Your team might slow down if they can’t see the next mile marker.

To make your projects fluid and stick to what you promised your clients, your goal-setting habits must be consistent. That’s where SMART management techniques can guide you.

You may have heard of setting SMART objectives and goals to achieve your personal and business aims, but let’s dive into how they can keep your team on track and your project lifecycles moving.

What Is SMART Management?

Conceived in the early 1980s by George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham, the SMART framework was designed to enhance leadership acumen, individual contributor effectiveness and project completion rates.

The acronym stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

The idea is that actual progress is only achievable when you can check off tangible steps along the way.

Over the past few decades, small businesses and large corporations have turned to SMART goal-setting to improve project management outcomes. Its adoption across different-sized companies speaks to its flexibility.

What Are the Pros and Cons of SMART Project Management?

As with any strategic approach, this method of goal-setting has its advantages and drawbacks. Doing things the SMART way can lead to on-time delivery and creative project management solutions, but it can also be limiting and restrictive for certain projects.

Pros of using SMART goals

  • Greater motivation, focus and direction
  • Defined timeframes for each project stage
  • A straightforward way to align management’s goals with client expectations
  • Easier decision-making at project pivot points

Cons of using SMART goals

  • Can reduce focus on larger objectives
  • Increase in individual pressure and risk of burnout
  • Inflexible for non-linear methods of project management
  • Setup that may take time away from billable work

When you’re aware of the potential issues, you can enter into this project management method with greater sensitivity to signs that could indicate trouble.

How Can SMART Criteria Improve Business Productivity?

Much of the power of SMART criteria lies in demystifying roles and responsibilities. When team members are confused about the importance of their tasks and their part in a project outcome, they may not be as focused as they should be.

SMART goals with step-by-step breakdowns reduce ambiguity and improve project management processes and team performance in multiple ways:

  • Your resource allocation may be more accurate — and, therefore, your utilization higher — because you have defined time parameters for each task and stage.
  • Performance management and monitoring become easier since your managers have measurable targets and a transparent view of progress.
  • Your team feels more engaged and driven to succeed.
  • You can adjust processes often and clear up bottlenecks because the structured approach supports more regular feedback.

What is the combined effect of these improvements? Increased productivity.

FAQs: Tips To Follow When Setting SMART Goals

Although the SMART method might seem straightforward, you could have questions about getting started. Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about SMART goals and applying them to project management:

How can I ensure my goals are specific and measurable?

Use quantifiable benchmarks. What are the exact results you want to see? These should be in the form of clear metrics.

For instance, let’s say you’re aiming for a 15% increase in average delivery speed or a 25% reduction in customer requests. Before setting these targets, ensure you have a system or tool to track them.

What makes a goal attainable and relevant?

An attainable goal is one that’s realistic with your current resources and considers your constraints. It’s most impactful if you go for goals that are also challenging enough to encourage growth. 

Relevance is about alignment with your broader business strategies. How does the goal fit into your business mission? Checking off numbers is great, but you must consider long-term direction, too.

What’s a reasonable timeframe for a SMART goal?

smart goals project management timeframe

Since your SMART goals will be specific to your business and industry, there isn’t one set timeframe that’s best.

Short-term goals might range from a few weeks to a few months. Long-term goals could span several months to a year or more. When deciding on a time period, think about what will motivate action without causing unnecessary stress.

How can our team maintain flexibility with SMART goals?

Remember that no goal is set in stone.

If major changes occur between now and your proposed deadline, you can communicate with your team to adjust the goal and reallocate resources.

Be agile about adapting objectives that are no longer relevant due to unforeseen circumstances, but don’t rework goals purely because you’re not on track to achieve them.

What’s the best way to train my management team to understand and use SMART goals?

It can be helpful to use a combination of formal training sessions, workshops for new hires and ongoing support.

Your initial meetings might be more in-depth, but going forward, you can create a SMART management module or handbook with reference materials that take up less time and resources. However, they should still get across the strategies and key learnings your leaders need to know to hold their respective teams accountable.

Can I still use SMART goals if I have a small team?

Absolutely! There are no restrictions on team size when applying SMART criteria. In fact, you may find it easier to implement and monitor SMART goals with a small team due to close communication channels.

Focus on clear, measurable outcomes that make sense for how your team works and what your business needs to flourish, regardless of how many employees you have.


The Unique Nature of Goals in Professional Services

If you’re in a client-based industry, you may want to take a slightly different approach to SMART goal-setting than those in a product-based space.

Think outside the proverbial box to develop measurable achievements that consider the following factors:

  • Client relationships are paramount, so some of your goals should be around their satisfaction and retention.
  • Your team needs to develop soft skills to improve client service. Why not create a goal around quarterly training?
  • Demand for services fluctuates rapidly, and you know your industry best. Keep nuances in mind as you build a protocol for SMART management.

Finding a Platform To Support SMART Management

smart goals project management platforms

Once you understand what SMART goals are and prepare your team to lead with these ends in mind, you should plan for how you’ll maintain SMART management practices going forward. 

One of the best methods is with a project management platform built to support SMART objective tracking.

At the very least, consider adopting software that empowers your team with:

  • Automation: Replacing administrative or repetitive project management tasks and setting up notifications using rules and triggers can make it easier to reach any goal and do so efficiently.
  • Project templates: Templates are major time-savers, so they can help you complete project work faster and spend less time assigning tasks for each new client.
  • Gantt charts: Progress visualization is essential for hitting your project goals, and editable Gantt charts make it quick to adapt timelines and dependencies.
  • Time tracking: A common goal in project management is to improve employee utilization, which is only possible if you have data from an effective time-tracking tool.
  • Resource scheduling: If you don’t know your team’s capacity and upcoming availability, you won’t feel confident about meeting goals for your current projects or committing to more.
  • Expense management: To achieve your project profitability goals, you should have a way to track all project costs in detail.
  • Real-time project insights: SMART management depends on your ability to predict and preempt problems. Your managers need visibility over what’s happening right now on every project.

Read next: The 11 Best Project Management and Time Tracking Tools

Chart Your SMART Course With an End-to-End Solution

A project management platform with all of the above features will help track and achieve SMART goals related to projects, but it will limit your ability to measure your progress across the whole client journey.

For example, if you set objectives for delivery time, employee utilization or project profitability, there could be sales or client service elements that contribute to whether you hit them or not. 

Sales can impact your transition to client service and increase per-client costs. Issue resolution speed can further reduce margins or, on the other hand, increase client satisfaction. Regardless of your specific goals, you need to see all activity in one place.

Start-to-finish visibility can make reaching and setting goals easier, bringing true SMART management within reach.

Accelo gives you a bird’s-eye view into your project and non-project goals via real-time insights, centralized task tracking and more. Find out why end-to-end is the way to go for your client work software. Book a demo today.


About the Author


Chelsea Williams is Senior Copywriter at Accelo, where she shares unique insights with service professionals and tells user stories via blogs, eBooks, industry reports and more. She has over 15 years of B2B and B2C writing experience — primarily in tech, sales, education and healthcare. Chelsea is an AWAI-certified Master Copywriter trained in brand storytelling and microcopy.

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