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SMART Goals: The Ultimate Trick for Your Action Plans

SMART: the ultimate template for your action plan

If there were to be only one important meeting for a team, it would be the Agile retrospective.

Conducted at regular intervals, the retrospective consists of coming back to past events from the previous project, learning lessons from the experience, then building an action plan that aims to support the rapid and continuous growth of the team.

In a nutshell, the action plan, composed of one or multiple action items, makes what the team wishes to improve come to life.

However, it is not always easy to develop an efficient action plan. And believe us, in our experience, we have found that how teams write and structure their action plan during a retrospective hugely impacts their chances of success.

Occasionally, the team can lose track of their action plan between two retrospectives because it was overly ambitious, too vague, or perhaps even the responsibility for the action items was not clearly established.

Fortunately, a simple and intuitive technique exists to help you write an action plan. So let's discover the SMART Goals framework together!

What is the SMART Goals method?

Pulling off your action plan can seem impossible if you don't stick to clear and measurable objectives. The SMART methodology helps you stick to precise goals that facilitate a solid understanding of shared expectations and measurable rules. SMART presents itself as something much better and more meaningful in defined action plans during your retrospectives.

The SMART Goals framework gets its name from the first letters of its 5 dimensions: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound.

S for Specific

An action element must be accurate, transparent, and not suffer from any ambiguity. Without this clarity, you expose yourself to the risk of team members having a different understanding of the expectations around an action item.

Avoid assigning an action item to more than one person at a time. Otherwise, you could risk weakening the idea of individual responsibility at the heart of the team.

Of course, several people may have to collaborate to complete an action item successfully. But this shouldn’t prevent you from designating a single action item messenger. Therefore, we encourage you to select a team member who can actively contribute to resolving the action item.

See the role of the person assigned to an action item as the spokesperson. This spokesperson must be able to communicate the state of progress of the action item frequently.

Here are some examples to clearly understand the idea of specification:

❌ Don't: Improve the collaboration with the Marketing team.

✔️ Do: Organize a weekly meeting with the Marketing team.

❌ Don't: Make sure the team meets often.

✔️ Do: Plan a Daily Scrum from 9 am to 9:15 am.

The 'good' items above look specific enough, don't they? However, they are still missing certain aspects to be 100% SMART. So let's dig into the Measurable aspect of a true SMART action item.

M for Measurable

Peter Drucker, the famed management theorist, once said:

‘You cannot manage what you cannot measure.’

The setup of an action item cannot escape the logic of our friend, Peter. It's why you must have a clear definition and a set goal for the conditions needed for the success of your action item.

How can you measure the progress of your action item? How will you know if you have reached your initial objective?

Let's look once more at our action item named ‘Organize a weekly meeting with Marketing’ and let's try to make it Measurable.

Here, it is easy to understand if the action item has been completed or not. The weekly meeting has been planned, or it has not. Clear, straightforward, unambiguous.

But it's not over! It would be best to evaluate the impact of this new weekly meeting with Marketing during our next team retrospective. How can you say this initiative is a success if you don’t spend time evaluating it properly? ;)

An easy way to go along with this exercise is to evaluate the impact of this action item on a scale from 1 to 5, then pair up this score with each participant's comments. That way, you gather both quantitative and qualitative data and deliver a full team evaluation of the action item.

A for Attainable

What is more frustrating than a completely unrealistic objective? I bet you may have already experienced this kind of situation in your professional or personal life.

How did you feel when you understood that the objective had absolutely no chance of being completed, given rough constraints of time, resources, amount of work, etc.?

When shaping your action item, you want to make this one doable, possible, and attainable. Remember that it is best to complete one or two items from your action plan rather than having five or six items completed halfway. A halfway finished item usually brings no value to the team.

Let's illustrate this principle with two examples:

❌ Don't: Improve the collaboration across the company.

✔️ Do: Improve the collaboration across our team.

The case above shows the difference between what is realistically doable and what is not within the team's capacity.

❌ Don't: Plan a 2-hour Daily Scrum with our team.

✔️ Do: Plan a 15-minute Daily Scrum with our team.

This second example shows the degree of constraint and the potentially negative impact of our action item. Can you imagine the consequences for the team if our daily meetings go on for too long? Do we really need to add a 2-hour daily session to improve our collaboration? :)

R for Realistic

Since we are not building an action plan for our own pleasure, the action items must contribute adequately to the team's continuous improvement. And it must be done in a measurable way.

Similarly, when you create an action item, you offer a concrete solution. Ensure that this solution is closely tied to the identified problem. And make sure that the team's chances of fixing the problem through this action item look high.

Example:

What is the problem?

Our team notices a lack of communication with the Marketing team (both quantitatively and qualitatively).

What are the signs?

The Marketing team didn't understand the last published feature well, so they had to spend more time than planned to build a trustworthy feature page. Unfortunately, it resulted in the late delivery of that page on our website.

Example of Action Item:

Organize a weekly meeting with Marketing (the goal is to keep everyone posted on the progress of our next feature).

T for Time-bound

Be precise in the conception of your action plan. I believe you don't want your action item's completion date to seem unclear to your team members, do you?

If you don't set a deadline for your action items, the team will probably forget to address them and/or decide to prioritize other businesses instead.

Also, don't underestimate the power of the deadline in terms of motivation for the team. In the course of a retrospective, creating an action item that needs to be completed within 3 months wouldn't look so motivating, for instance.

On top of that, setting a time limit for your action item helps the team prioritize their tasks more effectively.

Organizing a weekly meeting with Marketing - March 24, 2022

Planning a Daily Scrum for 15 minutes with the team - March 24, 2022

A concrete example of a SMART action item

Let's go over the identified problem one last time:

Our team notices a lack of communication with the Marketing team (both quantitatively and qualitatively).

So what would an effective SMART action item look like?

  • Specific: organize a weekly meeting with the Marketing team. Julien is responsible for being the messenger of this action item.

  • Measurable: once the first occurence of the meeting is done, we evaluate the impact of this initiative at our next team retrospective (by providing an impact score from 1 to 5 along with optional comments).

  • Attainable: we believe that 30 minutes should be enough time to talk with Marketing.

  • Realistic: this meeting aims to reinforce the link between our two teams, collaborate better, and foster anticipation for maximizing the quality of our work.

  • Time-bound: the first session will be held on March 24, 2022

The SMART method in a nutshell

Here's a recap of each component of SMART:

  • Specific: very precisely and without ambiguity, describe the action item.

  • Measurable: set metrics or targets to measure action item progress and impact.

  • Attainable: make sure that you can reasonably accomplish the objective.

  • Realistic: ensure the action item is part of your team's and your organization's continuous improvement process.

  • Time-bound: set a specific and motivating delivery date for the team.

Experience fun and productive retrospectives

Hosting retrospectives from a distance shouldn't be a constraint. At Neatro, we offer a remote retrospective experience that gathers all the best practices to make your meeting a great success.

Since we are dealing with the art of designing effective action plans in this article, did you know that Neatro offers a Kanban board specifically dedicated to tracking your team's action items?

Each member of your team can, in an autonomous way, provide updates on the progress of the action items.

Here are five reasons, among so many others, to try Neatro with your team:

  1. Take advantage of dozens of ready-to-use retrospective templates

  2. Improve the level of psychological safety within the group

  3. Avoid groupthink and let everyone engage authentically

  4. Easily measure the continuous improvement of your team

  5. Save time by exporting your action items to your Jira, Asana, or IceScrum space (and more!)

Try out Neatro for your next retrospective -it’s free!

Discover Neatro's retrospective templates