Organizational goal setting is essential to staying competitive, tackling new opportunities, and maintaining alignment. However, simply setting goals isn’t enough — you need a structured approach to creating, tracking, and completing them. This is why goal-setting frameworks such as objectives and key results (OKRs) and SMART goals are essential.
In this article, we'll explore OKRs vs. SMART goals. We'll do so by looking at the difference between OKRs and SMART goals, comparing them, listing their pros and cons, listing some examples of OKRs vs. SMART goals, and exploring ways of combining the two.
What are OKRs?
The OKR methodology involves utilizing two distinct elements to establish and monitor ambitious goals: objectives and key results. Objectives denote the inspiring goals that one intends to accomplish, and are typically concise, qualitative, and captivating in nature. Key results, on the other hand, are quantifiable and have a specific time frame, enabling one to evaluate their progress towards achieving the objective. Typically, each objective is associated with two to four key results.
Want an in-depth look at OKRs? Read more in our OKR guide below
What are SMART goals?
SMART goals (or SMART criteria) refer to a goal-writing guide that outlines five standards for your goals. These state that your goals should be:
- Specific: Target a particular area for improvement
- Measurable: Quantify or suggest progress metrics
- Achievable: Ensure you can achieve your goals with the given resources
- Realistic: Outline what results you can feasibly achieve using the available resources
- Timely: Highlight when your goal should be achieved
While this is the original (and most popular) SMART acronym, the acronym's meaning has had several iterations. For example, A can also stand for ‘Assignable,' and R can stand for 'Relevant.'
OKRs and SMART goals: A brief history
Both OKRs and SMART goals date back to the theory of Management by Objectives (MBO). Peter Drucker first used MBO in his 1954 book The Practice of Management, where it was put forward as a framework to help managers guide and align employees with broader company goals.
Later in the 1970s, Andy Grove took the MBO framework and expanded it to OKRs. Then, in 1981, SMART goals were developed by George Doran, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham in their article There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives.
OKRs vs. SMART goals examples
To show the difference between OKRs vs. SMART goals, let’s walk through a quick example of how they diverge in terms of structure and ambition levels in the context of content marketing. For this example, let’s say our goal is to increase blog traffic.
Here’s how to structure it as a SMART goal:
- Specific: The marketing team will publish three well-researched blog posts a week based on keyword research to increase organic traffic by 30%
- Measurable: We will use Google Analytics to track organic traffic and measure the success of our goal
- Achievable: Content marketers, SEO specialists, and graphic designers will work closely to ensure alignment
- Realistic: We have the personnel and resources to sustain an ongoing content calendar
- Timely: We will release three articles a week throughout Q3, on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday mornings
Here’s how to structure it as an OKR:
- Objective: Use our blog to become thought leaders in our industry
- Key result 1: Increase organic traffic to our blog by 35% in Q3
- Key result 2: Double our blog subscribers
- Key result 3: Decrease bounce rate to 30%
- Key result 4: Increase the average session duration by 20%
When comparing the SMART goal vs. OKR in this context, the marketing OKR is more ambitious and contains multiple metrics.
OKRs vs. SMART goals: What's the difference?
OKRs are a goal-setting framework, SMART goals provide a template for writing goals
OKRs and SMART goals facilitate goal setting differently. OKRs offer an actionable goal-setting framework to promote organizational alignment, transparency, and focus. Meanwhile, the SMART criteria are a set of characteristics companies can use to write their goals. These act as a template rather than an actionable framework.
OKRs are aspirational, SMART goals are tactical
OKRs and SMART goals also differ in how ambitious they are. OKRs challenge teams and organizations to take on ambitious stretch goals with attainment rates of 60-80%. These goals often require collaboration, lateral thinking, and innovative working methods. On the other hand, SMART goals are mostly process-oriented, where they're achievable, risk-averse, and entail the completion of day-to-day tasks.
OKRs aren’t tied to compensation, SMART goals are
The difference between OKRs and SMART goals also lies in how they link to performance. As OKRs are used to create aspirational goals, they shouldn't be tied to compensation. Not mixing OKRs with compensation makes employees more likely to set ambitious goals that inspire innovation and constructive failure. On the contrary, SMART goals are often tied to compensation as they’re achievable and more individualistic.
OKRs are flexible, SMART goals are static
OKRs were made to adapt to organizations. Businesses are meant to update, renew, or scrap OKRs as new changes emerge in their business environment. Therefore, OKRs can be set monthly, quarterly, or annually. This flexibility ensures that OKRs don't become outdated throughout the OKR cycle. In contrast, organizations shouldn't change their SMART goals after initially setting them. As such, most SMART goals are set annually.
OKRs are public, SMART goals are private
OKRs and SMART goals vary in their transparency. The OKR framework encourages visibility across the organization by making OKR progress accessible to everyone in the business. Meanwhile, SMART goals tend to be more private (unless the organization wants to make them public).
OKRs can be established top-down, cross-functionally, or bottom-up, while SMART goals are set top-down
OKRs can be set top-down, bottom-up, or cross-functionally. This enables input from broader stakeholders, encouraging a wider scope of conversation. On the other hand, as SMART goals are created for individuals, they tend to adopt a top-down approach. This makes them more authoritative and concrete (but less aligned with the broader organization).
OKRs measure multiple metrics, while SMART goals measure one
SMART goals are typically measured by a single metric, whereas OKRs are multi-metric. As such, SMART goals have a narrow approach to success, whereas OKRs have a more holistic take on achievement.
What do OKRs and SMART goals have in common?
While assessing SMART goals vs. OKRs reveals stark differences, the two frameworks share a few similarities.
They create measurable goals
Since OKRs have key results and SMART criteria emphasize measurability, both OKRs and SMART goals are quantifiable. As such, they allow organizations to track goal progress every step of the way.
They add precision to goals
OKRs and SMART goals offer a detailed goal breakdown, removing ambiguity when creating goals. Therefore, they can assist organizations in laying out strategic paths for their teams and employees.
Their goals are time-bound
Another similarity between OKRs and SMART goals is that they both have a specific start and end date. OKRs are mostly set per month or quarter (with annual OKRs possible as well), while SMART goals are established yearly.
Pros and cons of OKRs and SMART goals
Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of OKRs and SMART goals can give you a more nuanced and in-depth understanding of the two goal-setting approaches. Let's take a look at their pros and cons.
Pros and cons of OKRs
- Quicker to set than SMART goals
- Encourage innovation and creativity due to stretch goals
- Provide a flexible and agile approach to goal setting
- Encourage teamwork by fostering alignment and transparency
- May be perceived as restrictive
- Changing objectives and key results to adapt to fast-paced environments may be tiring and time-consuming
- Complex alignment process where training and experienced staff are needed to oversee progress and redirect attention to what matters
- Require discipline to be effective (i.e., daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly check-ins)
Pros and cons of SMART goals
- Each goal has a single, specified measurable goal, making it easy to determine success
- Provides a clear, detailed, and structured approach to writing goals
- No limitations on what the acronym stands for — it can be adjusted to suit each organization
- May encourage mediocrity
- It doesn't provide an actionable approach to achieving goals, just an outline for writing them
- SMART goals' attainability hinders motivation
- Can be time-consuming to plan, which may lead SMART goals to overshadow areas of business that require attention
Are OKRs better than SMART goals?
Both OKRs and SMART goals can help you reach desired outcomes. However, their slightly different approaches may make one framework more suitable for specific organizations over others.
OKRs shine when setting ambitious goals that inspire businesses to innovate and adapt continuously. This makes them an excellent fit for dynamic industries, startups, or companies seeking substantial growth or transformative change.
In contrast, SMART goals excel in situations where precision and clarity are favored. They're well-suited for businesses and industries where specific, measurable, and achievable targets are critical, like those in healthcare, where well-defined tasks leave little room for ambiguity.
Ultimately, whether OKRs are better than SMART goals depends on how well they align with your organizational culture and strategy. The setting and nature of your business's goals should guide your choice, making it a context-dependent decision.
When to use OKRs vs. SMART goals
There are times when it's more appropriate to use OKRs, while at other times SMART goals would be better suited. Below are some cases where one would be preferable over the other.
Use OKRs when…
- You want to set more ambitious goals: OKRs are designed to be more ambitious than SMART goals, encouraging innovation and creativity in your business
- You need to align multiple teams and departments around a common objective: OKRs are great for organizational alignment, creating a sense of unity and shared purpose that's particularly valuable in large organizations with siloed structures
- You want to track progress towards outcomes, rather than tasks: OKRs are outcome-focused, tracking progress toward a desired outcome, rather than task completion
Use SMART goals when…
- You need to set short-term, specific goals: SMART goals are great for setting short-term goals, breaking down large goals into smaller, manageable tasks
- You need a clear action plan: SMART goals provide actionable steps to goal attainment
- You want to track progress toward completing specific tasks: SMART goals are task-focused, meaning they track progress toward specific tasks or projects
How to combine OKRs and SMART goals
The good news is that it doesn't always have to be OKRs vs. SMART goals — your organization can benefit from having both.
Here are several ways of combining OKRs and SMART goals.
Implement SMART OKRs
SMART criteria can help your organization set goals methodically and consistently. Therefore, applying a variation of SMART criteria to OKRs can augment the traditional process of setting OKRs to create SMART OKRs. The adjusted SMART criteria for OKRs are:
- Superlative: Aim higher than the expected outcome, encouraging employees to try new things and push beyond business-as-usual performance
- Measurable: Ensure that progress is quantifiable, enabling you to create OKRs that are universally acknowledged to be attained once certain metrics are met
- Aligned: Make sure your objectives contribute to the overarching goals, as objectives are only worthwhile if they collectively benefit the business
- Resourced: If your business objectives are aligned with the broader organization and have the potential to yield great results, request adequate support from upper management to ensure you can go after your objectives at full speed
- Time-bound: Time-bound as a criterion remains the same, yet, in the case of OKRs, positive outcomes must still exist even if the goal is only partially achieved at the end of the cycle
This altered SMART framework can train employees to assess whether objectives are aligned, aspirational, and attainable. Considering these brings better focus, greater productivity, and improved collaboration.
Use SMART goals as key results
Using SMART key results is an alternative approach to weaving SMART goals into OKRs. Unlike objectives that need to be aspirational, key results focus on tangible measurements of progress. For example, if you set an objective for OKR adoption (e.g., "Have OKRs become the lifeblood of our organization"), you can use SMART key results to measure progress accurately. These key results can look something like this:
- Key result 1: Everyone on the team owns an OKR
- Key result 2: Achieve overall goal attainment of 70%
- Key result 3: Track 270 key results
- Key result 4: Achieve 100% commitment to OKRs by Q3
These key results are Specific ("own"/" attain"/" track"), Measurable ("70%"/"270"/" 100%"), Assignable ("Everyone"/"We"/"Overall"), Realistic (where only one key result requires 100%), and Time-bound ("by Q3").
Use OKRs for organizational or outcome-related goals, while implementing SMART criteria for individual and output-related goals
OKRs are best suited for strategy execution. Your organization can use them to facilitate transparency and focus across company, departmental, and team goals. Conversely, SMART goals resemble old waterfall methodologies and entail long planning times. This makes them suitable for creating personal objectives where individuals can control their own outcomes and forgo the need for alignment.
Turn SMART goals into OKRs
If, however, your company is heavily entrenched in SMART goals and you want to strive towards more ambitious goals, you can easily transition to the OKR methodology using the following steps:
Step 1: Support your existing culture before improving it
The first step is ensuring that your employees, processes, and technology are prepared for change. You can aid this transition by creating an effective OKR culture. This is a combination of factors, including transparency, diversity, committed leaders, and clear company values.
Step 2: Aim higher
If your business's achievable measure of success is 40%, double it. If you're aiming for 90%, add an extra 10%. Make the necessary changes required to make your targets a little more challenging and aspirational.
Step 3: Measure more
The third step involves adding more metrics and analyzing goal performance from multiple perspectives. This can improve progress tracking, visibility into why initiatives are (or are not) progressing, and confidence in gathered insights.
Step 4: Establish ownership of objectives
The fourth step is identifying owners. Giving one person the responsibility of spearheading company-wide objectives is a recipe for disaster. Multiple metrics across various platforms mean that many teams and individuals must be accountable for organizational goals.
Step 5: Facilitate alignment
The penultimate step to turning SMART goals into OKRs is ensuring that other OKRs support your company's objectives. Not only does this ensure employees work together cooperatively, but it also facilitates productivity and growth across the board.
Step 6: Make objectives exceptional
The final piece of the puzzle is making objectives motivating. Use language to shape employees' perceptions of targets and encourage them to tackle their goals. According to several prominent behavioral studies, individuals have enhanced goal progress when they own inspired goals.
How Quantive can help you achieve your goals
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