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IT Project Management basics part one - Have we lost the art of SMART?

Image of blackboard explaining SMART goals

During a recent conversation about IT Project Management and, specifically how to set and achieve goals, I was told that something I'd said was, and I quote, "amazing".

I think "amazing" is the most over used word in the English language these days, usually with the middle 'a' elongated, "amaaaaaaaaaaaazing". I blame Love Island. Anyway, I digress, the chap I was talking to seemed genuinely taken by the ground-breaking, "amazing" new concept that I'd shared, he picked my brains for a good few minutes and even grabbed his iPhone to create a note.

What was the thing I'd mentioned? SMART Targets.

I know! Hardly ground-breaking or new, you might say SMART targets are even a project management basic. He was right on one thing though, they are "amaaaaaaaaaaaazing" but if this one project manager is anything to by, it seems some projects have lost the art of SMART, or worse still, never learned it in the first place. "Amaaaaaaaaaaaazing"

This got me thinking. I've noticed other concepts that, to me, are IT Project basics that are increasingly being forgotten, overlooked or are just not part of the DNA of Project Managers and their teams. In this short series, we'll explore some of them. If your project capability is stretched, if you are having to cut corners on project basics (like SMART targets) then the Project Management as a Service sector has an abundance of resources to help, from better project software to end to end Project Management Office.

Today then ...

SMART Targets

Every day we subconsciously set ourselves thousands of targets, whether it be to make an early morning coffee or to remember to put the bins out on bin night, however some goals require a deeper level of goal setting, this is where SMART targets come in handy.

The notion of SMART targets may appear basic but increasingly and perhaps paradoxically, as IT projects have become more complex, teams are forgetting to do some of these basics. It is a common symptom that I see in projects that are failing - teams are to busy working in their projects to work on them.

To quickly refresh our minds, let’s look at exactly what a SMART target should consist off, what each letter stands for ...


What is it that you’re trying to achieve, try to be as specific as possible when deciding on your goal. For example, rather than saying 'I want to complete the coming sprint' state exactly what you want to complete, this way you are more likely to focus on those specifics. Habit 2 of Steven Covey's 'Seven Habits of Highly Effective People' is  "Begin With the End in Mind"


How are you going to measure how close you are to completing your target? How will success be measured? I remember this quote from way back in my school days, it is from Galileo Galilei, it goes "Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so." Love that! There are many different ways of measuring IT Project success, for example you may decide that you want to achieve a certain number of deliverables, or a certain level of stakeholder satisfaction. You may want to meet a budget, deliver a specific return on investment (ROI) or level of quality.

Attainable / Achievable

Making sure a target is achievable is key. Setting unrealistic targets will likely lead to unnecessary stress as well as failure. All too often, physical and financial resources are the measures of attainability but it also pays to consider the experience of your team, i.e., how it will feel for them. If delivering this is going to drive them to drink or to look for work with other projects, then your goal is not achievable - at this moment! Consider PMaaS resources to bolster your capability and ease pressure! 


When anyone sets a goal it should be relevant to their individual needs. This is why most diets fail! If the need for chocolate cake, a glass of wine and fish and chips on a Friday is greated than the need to lose weight, i.e. weight loss is not a relevant goal, guess what will happen. The same goes for goals set in IT Project Management. All goals should be relevant to the overall aim of the software being developed, the business change that is needed or the strategic goals of the organisation. 

Timely / Time bound

Finally, you need to set yourself a completion deadline. It is important that the deadline is realistic but pushes the team to work hard. A project leader shouldn’t set their team a week to complete a task that should be done across three weeks, which sounds obvious but commercial pressure as they are, too many friends are burning out trying to deliver ROI unrealistically quickly. If you are feeling commercial pressure to say 'yes' beyond your current capability you should explore PMaaS. 

Who are the fans of SMART targets? What benefits do they bring?

Surveys carried out by the Institute of Personal Management found that 62% of UK companies use SMART targets as a way of motivating talent and improve performance levels. Byron Pulsifer, an author specialising in self improvement books, champions them. He says that those who use SMART targets are much more likely to achieve their targets than those who simply state their goals. His stuff is worth a read!

Studies show that teams using SMART targets are much more focused on achieving their goals. Individuals understand what their goal is, as well as exactly how and when they are going to achieve it, they are therefore more likely to focus on completing the task required and achieve the overall goal.

SMART targets fit perfectly into the software development cycle and most project management methodologies. Effective teams will break development up into short sprints, at the start of these sprints decide on what they are looking to achieve. Teams design SMART targets in order to decide exactly how they are going to achieve their goal as well as whether or not their target is achievable.

SMART targets may also lead to higher customer and end user satisfaction, part of designing a SMART target is ensuring that your goal is relevant, this allows your team to ensure that what they are working on is relevant to the "customer’s” needs.

Are there are drawbacks to SMART targets?

Whilst SMART targets are widely considered the most effective goal setting method, like everything, there downsides.

In IT Project Management, you may have to guard against SMART targets limiting creativity, especially when developing software intended to disrupt. Teams usually decide on a method at the same times as agreeing their end goal and once agreed SMART targets don’t always allow for changes to be made.  This prevents scope creep from occurring, which is good, but sometimes scope creep can allow teams to explore new ideas and innovate their software.

Most research shows that SMART target, while great for sprints, are less effective for long term goals. Therefore, IT project teams may need to look at other goal setting methods for more 'overall goals'. However, as previously discussed, when you break overall goals into manageable work units - SMART is king!!

You should also be cautious when deciding on overall goals and deadlines. When used incorrectly, for example setting unrealistic targets (like short deadlines), SMART targets can place too much stress and pressure on team members and eventually lead to project failure, it's much better to allow your team a few extra weeks to perfect a piece of software rather than forcing them to rush and produce a poorer piece of work.

Writing all of this feels like I'm teaching your Granny to suck eggs! You know all of this! I know all of this! However, with IT Project failure rates as consistently high as they are, maybe we need to remind ourselves of some of these basics. In the opening, you read that some teams are just too busy working in their projects to work on them and while I understand this, it is also short sighted in the extreme. Project basics are like the plants in your office, they need to be watered daily and fed once in a while otherwise you look up one day and find that they've withered and died!

The most basic, common and therefore ordinary goal of EVERY IT Project is that they are initiated to succeed ... to deliver business need or facilitate change. That's it! Simple. IT Project success is therefore not a mystery but a series of basic, common and ordinary things that are all done extraordinarily well.

Treat yourself to some thinking time this week, if you are struggling with your IT Projects of late, is there a project management 'basic' that you need to water!

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