Tuesday, 15 October 2013

SMART Goals - where do they come from?

A colleague of mine, Kelly Mitchell, wrote an article on SMART goals recently (see references below), and reminded me that I had intended writing an article on the background to SMART goals ages ago, and had been derailed by a lack of information.

I have taught SMART goals to my students for many years using Sandy Millar's book. Sandy says that this mnemonic stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely goals which employees need to set within the performance cycle to align with organisational objectives. Unfortuntely, Sandy's book contains no references as to this model's history.

I resurrected my data, ideas and sources to see what I had. On review, not a lot. Lots of people in the 2000s talking about the model, but I knew it was much older than the 2000s.

So I turned to the University of Auckland (UoA) library and did a fairly extensive search, and turned up a few items. Firstly Mason Carpenter and his team in Principles of Management attributed SMART goals to management guru and creator of MBO, Peter F Drucker. However, I was unable to find any specifics in Peter Drucker's writing. I am still waiting for  Chapter 11 from Peter's 1954 book, the Practice of Management, to be emailed to me for a double-check.

The UoA library search turned up George Doran, who wrote about SMART goals for the Management Review in 1981. However, there was no indication of any skull-sweat having gone into his article on the model, so I assumed he was writing about what was already common knowledge (and I later read an article by Mike Morrision, who has assumed the same thing).

Rubin wrote an article in 2002 seeking answers to the foundations of SMART goals and turned up nothing. His earliest source was a 1990 book on goal setting by Locke & Latham.

Mike Morrison's article alerted me to Anthony Raia's 1965 article in the Journal of Management Studies. I downloaded that from the UoA library and found a few of the SMART goal ideas; goals should be realistic and measurable. He also skirted vaguely around goals being specific. However, I think that to say Raia's article forms the foundations of the SMART model is, at best, tenuous, at worst, totally unrelated. Mike has not updated his article on the history of SMART since 2010.

But the UOA library did turn up a marketing planning article by Andrall Pearson from 1959, where he wrote about setting goals which are "specific and achievable", "quantitative [which] facilitates better measurement", it mentions the "plan period" (though no other aspect of time). It does not mention that goals need to be realistic. But three out of five with an implied fourth is closer than Raia's work in 1965.

Additionally, Peterson in 1965 talked about engineering courses needing to be reorganised along the lines of "(1) the formulation of specific objectives from value potential, (2) the measurement of value, (3) the specification of available choices, (4) the prediction of outcomes, (5) the estimation of criterion functions, and (6) optimization processes" which is starting to look a little like embryonic SMART objectives.

Hopefully someone, somewhere, will have a connector that bridges Drucker in 1954, Pearson in 1959, Peterson in 1965 and Doran in 1981. Let me know if you do, and I will update this if Drucker's Chapter 11 from The Practice of Management yeilds any fruit!



  • BusinessBalls (n.d.). SMART: Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time-bound. Retrieved from https://www.businessballs.com/glossaries-and-terminology/acronyms-finder-199/#toc-505
  • Carpenter, Mason; Bauer, Talya & Erdogan, Berrin (2010). Chapter 6: Goals and Objectives in Principles of Management. USA: Flat World Knowledge (pp. 153-180).  
  • Doran, George T. (1981). There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write managements's goals and objectives.  Management Review, November 1981, Volume 70, Issue 11 (pp. 35-36). 
  • Drucker, Peter F. (1954). The Practice of Management. USA: HarperCollins
  • Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Millar, Sandy (2006). Managing Human Resources in New Zealand (3rd Edition). New Zealand: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  • Mitchell, Kelly (11 October 2013). S.M.A.R.T. Goals And How They Make A DIfference. Retrieved 13 October 2013 from http://myjobadvice.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/s-m-a-r-t-goals-and-how-they-make-a-difference/#comment-626  
  • Morrison, Mike (22 June 2010). History of SMART Objectives. UK: RapidBI. Retrieved 13 October 2013 from http://rapidbi.com/history-of-smart-objectives/ 
  • Pearson, Andrall E. (1959). An approach to successful marketing planning. Business Horizons,  month 1959, volume 2, issue 4 (pp. 74-82) 
  • Peterson, George L. (1965). Toward The Improvement Of The Traditional Course In Engineering Economy Through Unification As Applied Decision Theory. The Engineering Economist, 1965, Volume 10, Issue 4 (pp. 17-31)
  • Raia, Anthony P. (1965). Goal Setting and Self-Control: An Empirical Study. Journal of Management Studies, February 1965, Volume 2, Issue 1 (pp. 34-53)
  • Rubin, Robert S. (2002). Will the Real SMART Goals Please Stand Up? The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, April 2002, Volume 39, issue 4 (pp. 26-27)

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