Close to the end of every quarter begins maybe the busiest week for every product manager: planning. Between OKRs definitions, strategy discussions, and capacity calculations, we often feel overloaded by information. The information given to us is often too much in terms of scope but too little in terms of confidence.
Those who are smart often have leverage, but those who use SMART definitely have a better chance to engage with effective objectives.
Puns aside, what are SMART goals and how do we use them? As with many things product, it’s easy but not so straightforward. I promise you’ll go from zero to hero at the end of this article, though. Let’s go!
No, it’s not a new framework or anything. They are not an alternative to OKRs, as well. SMART are values, things that every objective should be regardless of the form in which they are presented as: (S)pecific, (M)easurable, (A)chievable, (R)elevant, and (T)ime-bound.
The acronym was coined in 1981 by George Doran, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham with the publication of the article There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives. Feel free to read the original thing, but my take here will be more objective and somewhat updated with more than 40 years of industry history since the original publication.
For something to be achievable, it should be clear. Asking for a cab driver to take you to the office might mean hundreds of different things, and most of them do not mean success. They could take you to the cab company headquarters, they might drive you towards downtown and leave you at a busy corner, or they could even show you an episode of the beloved ‘00s show with the same name. None of those outcomes represent your need to get to XX avenue number YY.
The more specific a goal is, the more achievable it is. Not only because it provides clarity, but because you have an easier time picking trade-offs.
Should we prioritize this feature that increases visits to our website or should we invest in cross-selling? If your goal is to “grow revenue,” priorities might be blurry, but if your target is to “grow revenue leveraging the active customer base,” decisions become more straightforward.
This is a tricky one. No one argues that an objective should be a measurable thing upon its delivery, but a lot of people forget that objectives should be measurable during delivery too.
More important than knowing if you got where you wanted is knowing if you’re getting there. Working blindly towards a goal is analogous to not working to achieve it at all. If you can’t track how far or close to an objective you are during delivery, you’re counting on luck alone.
A very common goal to be found in most tech plans is “hitting NPS of XX.” There is nothing inherently bad about this goal from a “measurable” point of view, but if you’ll send NPS surveys only at the end of the quarter, how the heck will you know if the quarter work you’ve been doing helps you to achieve the said goal?
You might prioritize all the wrong features and improvements and discover that only when it’s too late. A measurable goal from the start is an easier one to achieve.
OKRs implemented this horrible paradigm on every product person’s head that objectives should be “challenging.” By challenging, most leaders think “achievable only by a miracle.” They would be happy with 80 percent of the proposed target, but because OKRs said so, they must push it towards being unreasonable.
One of two things happens when you set unachievable goals: you either tell people that 80 percent is fine and they will transform that into the new goal, or you say nothing and eventually, people will notice that any effort is futile and therefore it’s better to do something else. Setting achievable goals is fundamental to having those goals fulfilled.
Despite what the word entails, an “objective” is usually not an end, but a means. Every business endgame is to make more money for its investors (if we’re speaking of an NGO, it’s making more money to help more people). That’s normally the real end, but this is too far away from the team’s zone of action.
An objective such as that involves a lot of moving parts that should be working together, hence we break this master objective into smaller ones.
Making more money usually revolves around two things: cutting costs or driving sales. Being relevant means that a goal should promote one of those two results emphatically. If you have a pretty good user experience already, but you feel it could do better, think about it: does doing so give us substantially more money or cut significant costs?
If the answer is “no”, then there is probably a better objective to take. Goal relevance is the drive behind effective strategy creation and efficient prioritization.
Product managers usually have bad blood with time constraints. Under the pretext that time-boxed expectations are something that a waterfall company enforces, product people tend to avoid as much as they can to compromise with dates. Not only is it false that hard timelines belong to waterfall alone, but it’s also detrimental for a great product to scrap such an important dimension of creativity.
Several articles validate the hypothesis that creativity blooms when under healthy doses of constraints. The most common of them all is time.
Without constraints, people become compliant and accommodated, usually losing sight of the work to be done, hence pushing goals deliveries further and further away. From this amazing article by the Harvard Business Review, it’s relevant to quote how Google uses strict time constraints to deliver more innovative prototypes.
In those 40 years I mentioned between the first paper on SMART goals being released and today, research has advanced and proposed two new values for effective goals: (E)thical and (R)ewarding. Although they deal with more intangible subjects, they are also important to engage people towards delivery.
Marty Cagan, the guy everybody thinks when someone mentions the word “product,” has updated his famous 4 product risks with a fifth one some time ago: should we build it?
In his original blog post, he ponders the ethical responsibility that all product managers have. With so many big tech companies receiving heat, such as Facebook, TikTok, or Airbnb, ethics has been gaining more and more ground in people’s minds.
As consciousness grows in society, engaging people toward morally questionable objectives is getting more and more difficult. Mad Men from the 50s wouldn’t bat an eye before promoting cigarettes for kids or coke-based syrups for tired moms, but in contrast, it’s hard to find someone today who advocates against data privacy. People are more critical of the byproduct of their work, and ethical objectives (or at least non-unethical) are almost mandatory for the industry.
Rewarding goals go hand in hand with ethical ones. If ethics give peace of mind to people, rewards give them joy. Long gone are the days in which people would be content spending the whole day inside a cubicle completing spreadsheets. Younger generations have a craving for meaning in ways that previous ones didn’t, and the consequence of unrewarding goals translates in the recent trend of silent quitting.
A rewarding goal speaks less about the goal itself than how you contextualize it. Older generations would receive an order and comply, no questions asked. Now, beyond the ethical quarrel, people are also interested in seeing what their work is being turned into. “Drive sales” is a heck of an unrewarding goal, but “transforming the way businesses do X” seems a lot more rewarding, therefore worth working for.
Since SMARTER goals are more of a framing matter rather than a constituent value of goal setting, I’ll leave them aside for now. Let’s focus on the basics and, who knows, I might write an advanced article on the topic in the future.
It would be easy to jump to conclusions and say that if you are a leader, it’s only a matter of applying the acronym, and that’s it. Otherwise, you have absolutely no power in the setup of SMART goals. Case closed.
At this point, we all know, it’s not that easy…
We usually end up with non-SMART goals not because management is ignorant, but because some significant pressures make them go the other way. An example would help me to materialize what I mean:
Alex is a PM that must set up goals for the next quarter. Alex’s product is relatively new inside the company, a global streaming service called Streamex. Despite being short-lived, the sales team is particularly eager to take advantage of the novelty as they see great sales potential for it.
Alex has the SMART acronym at heart, and he writes 2 OKRs that, on his understanding, will iterate on the tech debts the product inherited from its first release. A commercial director takes a look at the OKRs before planning season is over and frowns: why is there no mention of an international expansion plan here?
The commercial director speaks with Alex’s boss and both agree that expanding internationally is a great opportunity. What cascades down to Alex is that he should have an OKR to expand the product to three different countries.
Alex knows that this is not feasible inside a single quarter. Moreover, it’s not clear which countries they should expand to. They’re unable to track if the chosen countries are the best choices until release and even though they managed to get it right, it’d be a failure because the product is yet too immature to be absorbed by other markets. This goal is terrible and it would derail the product from success in the name of vanity.
Alex tries to argue with his manager, but it appears that the CEO bought in to the idea. It’s written in stone.
Our character has two options now. He either settles with this unfortunate luck and fails at delivering real value to his business, or he tries and takes the best out of this situation. He knows that upper management has a plan to roll out new markets as fast as possible. How to frame it inside a SMART goal?
Before giving the bad news to the team, he decides to transform this pickle into a SMART enough goal. Back to the drawing board, he knows two things:
The first task at his hand is trying to specify more what those three countries should be. After some back and forth with commercial, he identifies that there are two markets desperately in need of this product: Australia and South Africa. Since no valid third candidate was discovered, he managed to reduce the original three to two.
After settling down on which countries to expand to, he had to define success criteria to measure adoption as migration happens. Talking with commercial again, they decided that Alex would accompany some sales meetings to measure customer interest as prototypes roll out. The team would be able to measure how close they were to success by counting how many leads were interested. At the same time, they would be able to use this feedback to prioritize what would be the main bugs that they could fix while migrating.
Doing three countries would be impossible inside a quarter, but doing two is a feasible feat. A daring one, but feasible. Achievable and time-bound values are in the bag. The last value to assess is the relevance of their endeavor.
Commercial is adamant that doing so will drive results, but Alex is a restless PM and he goes after the numbers himself. After reading through some NPS comments from Australia and South Africa, he noticed that his product fixes a key pain for several customers. Bullseye!
The director and his manager compromised on what a healthy interest rate looks like measured in the number of hot leads and…done!
After two weeks of poking around, Alex comes up with the following OKR:
Fix Australia’s and South Africa’s adoption problem for Streamex
KR1: Have 10 hot leads in each market
KR2: Act on the three most brought-up bugs by leads
This somewhat-based-on-real-life-events story emphasizes the key tool to implement effective goals. It’s not leadership, it’s a SMART mindset toward everything. It doesn’t matter where you belong inside the corporate structure, you can always transform a “dumb” goal into a SMART goal with a little bit of effort.
As with many things product, being effective is less about following a recipe and more about having the right mindset. It’s not different with SMART goals.
Using SMART as lenses, you’ll not only be able to create your own objectives but you’ll also be able to transform those that are not great into potential successes.
It seems simple enough, but having SMART goals is half of the work toward reaching those said goals. The chances of getting lost with a working compass are way smaller than when using a broken one. The product jungle can be an unforgiving one, so stay SMART!
Featured image source: IconScout
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