257 – Be smart, use SMART goals

SMART goals are widely referred to in writings about planning. The SMART acronym provides a checklist of characteristics that goals or targets should have; they should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. It really is a useful checklist. Many goals for environmental or natural-resource projects are not SMART. In this post, I’ll outline why I believe they should be.

There are many different versions of the SMART acronym, but most are close to the list I’ve given above. In our work helping environmental organisations with their planning and evaluation of projects, we emphasis the importance of specifying goals that are SMART. Users of INFFER are required to specify at least one goal for each project, and we often find that people struggle with making them SMART.

Why does it matter? Let’s start with an example. Here is a non-SMART goal, taken from the business plan of an Australian environment program.

To increase the opportunities for short-term members or visitors to contribute to and partake in the protection and management of natural resources. 

This is not specific. Increase by how much? How is an ‘opportunity’ defined? What specifically is meant by protection? Protection of what? 

It is not measurable. Given that it’s not clear what an ‘opportunity’ is, or what ‘partaking’ involves, you could not quantify whether these things had been achieved. You may not be able to observe (and hence measure) whether people have had such opportunities, particularly if they don’t take them up.

It is not time-bound. Should the increase occur this year? Within a decade? Within the next century?

By contrast, here is a SMART goal taken from an INFFER project assessment:

To increase the groundcover on 20,000 hectares of bugwah duplex soils in the XXX region to 60% by 2020.

Clearly, this one is specific, measurable and time-bound.

lakeThese three parts of the acronym – S, M and T – are important for two reasons.

Firstly, the S and T parts determine the actions that will be needed to achieve the goal. If you change the specific outcomes being sought or the time frame, then the required actions will almost certainly change. If the goal is not specific enough, you can’t tell which actions are required.

Secondly, S, M and T determine whether it will be possible to monitor our success in achieving the goal. If we can’t monitor then we can’t evaluate the project and it makes it harder to learn from the project to improve our future projects.

The other two parts of the acronym – A and R – are important for quite different reasons. They relate to whether the project has been appropriately evaluated.  A goal could pass the S, M and T tests, but still not be achievable or relevant.

To be achievable, the goal must be feasible in several respects. It needs to be technically feasible – if we did the recommended physical actions, would we get the desired outcomes?

It needs to be feasible in a socio-economic sense. For example, if we are relying on an education program to deliver the intended outcome, would the education program result in sufficient behaviour change to reach 60% groundcover on 20,000 ha? It should not be assumed that it would achieve this result without consideration of the characteristics of the relevant landholders and of the required new practices and their challenges (social, practical and/or economic).

It needs to be financially feasible. Is the budget large enough to achieve the stated goal, given all of the costs involved. Often we observe that a project would be achievable but only if the budget was 10 times larger than it can reasonably be expected to be.

Finally, is the project relevant? Being an economist, I give this a particular slant – is the project actually worth doing? If you did a good quality ranking (another ‘R’ word) of the available projects, would this one be in the top group? This is by far the most challenging of the criteria, so not surprisingly it is very commonly not evaluated. But it should be. In Australia, our environmental budgets are tiny relative to our environmental problems, so it’s crucial to make sure that the projects that get funded are those that will provide the best environmental outcomes for the money.

The A and R criteria also have strong implications for how you should go about developing a SMART goal for a project. Once you understand the principles, it’s fairly simple to generate an SMT goal for a project, but the A and R require additional work. There can also be an interaction between the criteria. If you change the specific outcome that is to be pursued, its achievability and relevance can change completely. In our work on the Gippsland Lakes (Roberts et al., 2012), we looked at a wide variety of possible SMT goals. Some were relatively achievable and appeared relevant in terms of value for money. Others looked extremely hard to achieve, and extremely costly, offering terrible value for money and so scoring very low for relevance.

This discussion of A and R implies that you should not settle on the first SMT goal that comes forward. Instead, you should consider a variety of SMT goals to find those that are achievable, and to evaluate which of the achievable goals provide the best value for money. Assuming that you don’t have some sort of model to optimise the project, having a process that is a bit circular can be beneficial: you put forward a goal, define the project, evaluate it, and then go back and modify the goal or the project until you meet the achievability criterion at reasonable cost relative to the environmental benefits.

Further reading

Pannell, D.J., Roberts, A.M., Park, G., Alexander, J., Curatolo, A. and Marsh, S. (2012). Integrated assessment of public investment in land-use change to protect environmental assets in Australia, Land Use Policy 29(2): 377-387. Journal web site ♦ IDEAS page for this paper

Roberts, A.M. Pannell, D.J. Doole, G. and Vigiak, O. (2012). Agricultural land management strategies to reduce phosphorus loads in the Gippsland Lakes, Australia, Agricultural Systems 106(1): 11-22.    Journal web site here ♦ IDEAS page for this paper


  • Anna Roberts
    19 November, 2013 - 6:02 am | link

    Hi David – another good paper – in fact even better than the ones you have listed above is this one!

    Park, G, Roberts, A, Alexander, J, McNamara, L and Pannell D (2012) The quality of natural resource condition targets in regional natural resource management in Australia. Australasian Journal of Environmental Management DOI:10.1080/14486563.2013.764591

  • 19 November, 2013 - 6:13 am | link

    I wish to avoid a debate about terminology so i will avoid terms and definitions of same.

    In the hierarachy of what we want to achieve there needs to be something [a goal or an objective of an aspiration?] above the thing [a target?] that is SMART.

    There is a critical role for SMART. However reducing life to that which is SMART is not smart and it is extremenrly boring.

    • 19 November, 2013 - 6:36 am | link

      Thanks Tony. I agree that a higher-level goal that guides the sort of projects or investments that are to be considered within a larger plan or program is helpful. I feel strongly, though, that it should not be “aspirational”, in the sense that that term has been used in the Australian natural resource management sector – something hugely ambitious and basically unachievable. In many cases in the past, the focus has been on aspirational goals, which projects have uniformly failed to achieve. I reckon the “culture of hope” around NRM, reflected in these goals, has had huge costs for the environment, causing us to make really poor decisions about where to put our resources.

      I’m not sure what you mean by your last sentence. “Reducing life to …” is pretty sweeping. But on the face of it we seem to be disagreeing because I’m arguing that all funded environmental projects should have SMART goals. If that’s boring, give me boring. The exciting alternative, which is often the current reality, is projects for which one is not sure what actions are needed, where we don’t know whether the outcomes will be achievable or worthwhile, and where we can’t tell whether or not the outcomes have been achieved.

  • David Bennett
    19 November, 2013 - 5:09 pm | link

    In my training as a chair of committees and councils we had a session on the construction of good resolutions. Resolutions should be SMART, but they should also specify who is to carry out the resolution. (“The Committee directs the National Secretary to . . .”) If it is not obvious who should do the work to achieve the goal maybe this should be added.


    • 22 November, 2013 - 6:15 am | link

      I think there is a parallel in the world of environmental/natural resource projects. Having a SMART goal is not sufficient. It is just one part of a project plan. You also need to say in the project plan who will do what by when. That’s not all, of course. The plan should include information such as, whose cooperation will be needed, what budget is needed, what the risks to project success are, what delivery mechanisms will be used, and so on.

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