How to Reconcile SMART Goals and OKRs

Posted on July 18, 2022.

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“We don’t do OKRs, we use SMART goals,” my client said to me. “Is that the same thing?”

Here’s the answer I gave them.

Defining the terms

SMART is an acronym to help teams set goals that are:

  • Specific – are clear about the area they’re targeting
  • Measurable – quantifiable and a clear measure of progress
  • Assignable – can be explicitly given to an individual or team
  • Realistic – are achievable within a given time frame and set of capabilities
  • Time-related – have some kind of deadline

If you take a look at my definition of Objectives and Key Results (OKR) you’ll see that I state that your key results should be:

  • Quantifiable
  • Aggressive
  • Verifiable with evidence
  • Must be outcomes (measurable changes in human behavior)

Two sides of the same story

When we attempt to reconcile these two lists of goal-setting attributes we end up with this:

  • Quantifiable = Measurable 
  • Aggressive = Realistic
  • Verifiable = Specific
  • Outcomes = Assignable since we’re targeting specific user behaviors, we typically have teams dedicated to these users or specific parts of their user journeys 

That’s a fairly close alignment between these two concepts. There’s only one thing missing: the time-related attribute. Much of the conversation around OKRs focuses on quarterly KR targets as shown here. The time-related component is always a critical component of your OKR work. In my definition of OKRs, the target deadline appears in the objective rather than in the key results portion. Speaking of which…

Where does the “Objective” fit in this equation?

SMART goals make for great Key Results. One thing they lack is the overall goal or benefit we’re trying to achieve by hitting these metrics. That’s where your objective comes in. I’d argue that even if you don’t end up using OKRs or don’t want to use that terminology your SMART goals need an objective. This anchors the team in their “why.” It gives them a sense of purpose and inspiration and ensures they’re clear on the connection between the quantifiable goals and the overall vision and strategic direction for the product they’re working on. 

If you find yourself in an organization already committed to using SMART goals but OKRs have started drawing some attention in internal discussions, the good news is that these two concepts are easily reconcilable. All that’s missing, ultimately, to make your SMART goals complete is an objective statement.

One thought on “How to Reconcile SMART Goals and OKRs

  1. Unless your definitions are different from most of ours, I don’t see how aggressive = realistic, or how outcomes=measurable behaviors.
    Perhaps assertive vs. aggressive, and yes, desired outcomes often require different behaviours, however, often requires different outputs also?

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