SMART Goals, HARD Goals, OKRs: Which One When?

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Working at a variety of companies I’ve often been pushed to set goals or OKRs. In some companies it’s been dictated what I must use a specific goal setting framework, in others they’re adopted OKRs, but seem to have botched the implementation. I’ve seen some people that believe only one type of goal setting framework should ever be used. Personally I believe different goal setting frameworks work best in different scenarios. In this article I will describe how I believe SMART goals, HARD goals and OKRs can be used to derive the maximum benefit for an individual and a company or team.

# Goal types

Before we start let’s define what each of the goal types are that I will use in this article.

# HARD Goals

  • Heartfelt
  • Animated
  • Required
  • Difficult

A HARD goal needs to be heartfelt. You need to care about it. If you don’t care about the goal then you won’t have the motivation to achieve it and ultimately you won’t be able to fulfil the goal.

The HARD goal also needs to be animated. This means it needs to be alive and clear in your mind. If you don’t have clarity, and it isn’t something you actively think about, then you will either lack direction or you will forget about the goal.

HARD goals must also be required. If you don’t need to do it, chances are you won’t. You might start an attempt, but you won’t feel the need to complete it.

Finally, your HARD goal must be difficult. If it’s too easy you probably didn’t need to make it a goal, maybe it could have been a task of a to do list. If it isn’t difficult then you are also missing an opportunity to grow.

# SMART Goals

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achieveable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

A SMART goal must be specific. There must be a defined point at which it is clear the goal has been achieved. This means you know exactly what needs to be done and there isn’t any room for confusion or for moving the goal posts.

These goals must also be measurable. You need to be able to assess your progress toward the goal. This makes these goals well suited to longer term goals.

SMART goals must be achievable. If the goal isn’t achievable within your current boundaries then you can’t complete it, so it may as well not be set.

The goal must also be relevant. Making sure your goal is relevant to you and your direction is important, it helps to provide the reason you have the goal.

The final bit of a SMART goal is that it is time-bound. You have to have a deadline on completion. This will help you to prioritise it and ensures that you don’t procrastinate or delay it.

# OKRs

  • Objective
  • Key Results

OKRs are a bit different to other goal setting methods. OKRs recognise that as we approach our objective the importance of reaching it can wane, they also recognise that sometimes we have the capacity to go beyond the minimum and to really excel. There are many articles about OKRs, so I won’t go in to detail here; suffice to say that your objectives should stretch you.

The key results in OKRs are how you measure your progress toward your objective. For each key result you hit you’ve made a measurable step toward competing the objective.

# Start with yourself

Let’s start with personal goal setting. Many of us will do this without realising it, some of us do it consciously, and some of us just drift along without any real goals. If you want to do what’s important to you and to actually achieve your aims, then it’s important to set a variety of goals to help you get there.

When setting goals I generally start with a long-term goal; for the sake of some examples I’ll use a career goal and a health and fitness goal in this article.

Starting with a career goal, I encourage those I mentor to define the role they want to do the day before they retire. When setting this goal it should be an OKR; even if you only reach 70% of your goal it’s still an achievement, chances are you will still be happy with your success. In my case I have set the objective as “to be a CTO leading a team of developers numbering 500”; Even if I reach 70% of this (CTO with a team of 350) it is still an achievement I would be proud of. I’ve then defined some key results along the way (some of which I’ve already achieved); these include items such as “become a senior engineering manager,” “become a CTO,” “develop the long-term, strategic hiring plan for a development department”; all of the key results are way-points on my journey.

To help me on my journey to becoming a CTO with a team of developers of 500 I’ve defined a number of HARD goals. These align with the key results for my OKR. If I take the “become a CTO” key result I can see that this is actually a HARD goal; it is heartfelt, required, animated and I know it will be difficult. I can clearly define that it is heartfelt, it is important to me and I have chosen to make it a high priority. It is animated as I think about it most days, I assess a lot of choices based on how they will help me to progress toward this goal. It is required, if I don’t do it then I will never be able to approach my objective. Finally, it is difficult; when I set this objective I was a developer, the move from developer to people leader and then climbing the ladder to a role that few get to achieve is always going to be challenging.

As the time horizon for my HARD goals gets shorter I convert them to SMART goals. Taking the example of “become a senior engineering manager”; it is specific, there are measures along the way, I believe I can achieve it, it’s relevant to my career journey, and I have set a timeframe to achieve it. Although the term “senior engineering manager” has a few definitions within the industry, I have a specific one I use for this goal (responsible for more than one development team with engineering managers reporting to me). It’s measurable, there is a defined point at which I can say this goal has been achieved, and there are some point along the way I can validate my progress toward this goal. It’s achievable; I know that if I work hard, focus on growth and learning and take appropriate steps I can reach this goal within the timeframe I have specified. It’s relevant; unless I can take this step I won’t be able to reach my objective. It’s time-bound, I have set a timeframe of 24 months since becoming an engineering manager to take this step; this is a realistic timeframe and also aligns with my overall objective.

If I use the same pattern on a health and fitness related goal I end up with the following alignment. My objective is to reach and maintain a body weight between 75 and 80kg with a body fat percentage of 14%. At the time of writing this article I am 86kg with a body fat percentage of almost 21. I’ve set some key results, the first is to reach my desired weight, the second is to reach my desired body fat percentage, and then I have some key results about maintaining those values for periods of time.

From this OKR I can easily classify the key results as hard goals. I care about them, I regularly think about them and they influence my decisions, I need to do it (not just to reach my objective, but to be healthy), and they’re difficult (losing weight and gaining muscle mass doesn’t just happen through magic).

The initial focus of my health and fitness journey has been converted to a SMART goal. Getting my weight down to 75kg is specific (this has been derived from my objective which allows for finding the right balance between weight and muscle percentage); it is measurable (I can jump on the scales each morning and see my progress); it is achievable (I’ve done it before, I can do it again), it’s relevant (I can’t achieve my objective without doing it) and it’s time-bound (I’ve given myself until the end of this year to get to this weight).

As part of my goal setting I have also set some related goals using the SMART goal format. I’ve set a target of averaging 15,000 steps per day each week for 2 months. This goal is also specific, it’s measurable (I have a smart watch to help), it’s achievable, it’s relevant to my health and fitness goals, and it’s time-bound (I want to reach this goal by the end of winter).

As you can see, but combining OKRs for longer-term objectives, HARD goals for medium term, and SMART goals for the short term I have a clear direction and accountability toward my goals. To achieve these goals I have also taken specific actions to help me along my journey. Making good use of a to do list and my calendar I ensure I schedule time and tasks to keep me on track, and I’ve developed the self-accountability to ensure that I action the scheduling of these tools.

# How it works in a team or organisation

I’ve seen many organisations attempt to adopt OKRs and only do it partially or not understand the reasoning behind the OKR system. I believe OKRs are integral to the long-term success of an organisation, so I will start with this part of goal setting.

Many OKR proponents suggest that an organisation should set one (or maybe two) OKRs per cycle (six weeks, a quarter, possibly 6 months). This should be done at the company level, with departments deriving their OKRs from the company one, and teams (or teams of teams) from the department and so on. This limitation makes a lot of sense for a company (or a business unit) as they will generally have a single focus (as opposed to personal life where we may have to have several focusses for different parts of our life).

Personally I find that OKRs work really well in an organisation all the way down to the team level. They tend to be less effective at the individual level. The reason they don’t always work at the individual level is that people have a personal agenda that runs in parallel to the business agenda. Of course, this isn’t always the case, and it is up to each individual to ensure they use the right goal framework for themselves.

I’ve generally found in a team environment that HARD goals are great for people setting longer term career plans. Many people like to stay at one company for an extended length of time and to seek promotions, HARD goals are perfect for these people to drive their career development as the availability of a promotion can be outside of their control and therefore SMART goals are not suitable (it can’t be time-bound).

SMART goals can be useful to help individuals complete work that aligns with OKRs and can also be used to drive skills development. I’ve often encouraged team members to use SMART goals to drive them toward completing certifications; but I’ve also encouraged them to set a SMART goal or two that will provide focus on individual tasks that will benefit the team’s OKR.

When goal setting in a team or organisation it is important that these goals are not linked to performance assessments. Most goals can be gamed. If the company has an OKR centred around increasing MRR (monthly recurring revenue) to a certain amount, teams could achieve this with little regard for the long-term impact of the choices made. If an individual has a SMART goal centred around certification they could focus purely on gaining the certification (learning just what will be in the certification exam) and not get any useful benefit from the learnings.

In the personal goal setting section I gave some concrete, real-world examples of how I use different goal types for different purposes. Due to commercial considerations I feel I am unable to do this for team and organisation goals; but I can use a contrived example to demonstrate. I’ll base the company level OKR on one used as an example by Felipe Castro:

Objective: Create an Awesome Customer Experience

Key Results:

  • Improve Net Promoter Score from X to Y.
  • Increase Repurchase Rate from X% to Y%.
  • Maintain Customer Acquisition cost under $Y.

What is OKR?

The development department then derives their OKR with a focus on the repurchase rate and comes up with:

Objective: Improve Customer use of the Software

Key Results:

  • Increase weekday daily site visits from X% to Y%.
  • Increase weekly engaged users from X% to Y%.
  • Decrease inbound usability question rate from X calls to Y calls.

One of the teams within the department generates an OKR focussing on the daily site visit rate:

Objective: Simplify the login flow

Key Results:

  • Add two new SSO providers
  • Reduce the number of users required to reauthenticate from X% to Y%

Based on this flow of OKRs it becomes difficult to define personal OKRs that will align with these expectations. However, it is possible to generate some SMART goals. For this we’ll select a random programmer from the team and define their HARD and SMART goals:

HARD Goal: Learn about OAuth.

Heartfelt: This developers wants to better understand authentication and SSO. Animated: For some time this developer has wanted to understand how it works and has looked for an opportunity to learn. Required: To add additional SSO providers the developer will need to understand how OAuth works. Difficult: The use and implementation of OAuth is news to this developer and can’t just be understood with a quick discussion

SMART Goal: Implement a 3-legged OAuth workflow client by week 6 of the quarter.

Specific: The goal has a fixed outcome. Measurable: The goal is a simple achieved/not-achieved outcome. Achievable: With 3 sprints the developer has enough time to learn the concepts and implement a solution. Relevant: The goal will actively work toward the team OKRs. Time-bound: There is a fixed end-date defined.

Of course this developer may (and most likely will) have additional goals, but this is just giving an example.

# Conclusion

Different goal setting methods are appropriate for different situations. There is no one way of setting goals that beats everything else. It’s important to find the right goal setting framework for your unique situation, just because I’ve mentioned 3 of them here doesn’t mean there isn’t a better one for your situation. If you’re going to use a goal setting framework make sure you use it properly, if it doesn’t suit your needs find a different one.

The use of a combination of different goal setting frameworks can help you get the right level of detail and accountability for the particular goal you’re setting. SMART goals can help you meet a target date; HARD goals are good when you’re passionate about something, but may not have control over the timeframe. OKRs allow you to extend yourself and set goals that may be out of reach, but sometimes you might shoot for the moon and hit the goal.