The Clarity and Confusion Around Goals and Objectives


The year 2016 is approaching. You think to yourself, “We had better set some new goals and objectives for our organization, team, committee.” You might even think about doing this for your own life or career development. Yet, I hate to break the news to you but rarely do setting goals and objectives on their own lead to any useful change. Generally speaking however, goals and objectives are meant to be clarifying and catalyze action. They are meant to give you direction and focus.  That is what they are supposed to do, but 99% of the time they are stated poorly or incorrectly and lead to “the plan on the shelf” phenomenon. I will give my “two cents” (i.e., my humble but experienced opinion) on this topic. You likely have your own wisdom but if you do not, I hope this helps. My opinion is fairly strong on this because it does not have to be so confusing.

In this blog we’ll tackle 3 questions:

  1. What are goals?
  2. What are objectives?
  3. How do you make goals and objectives work really well?

What are goals?

The term goals means almost anything depending on who you talk to. This makes using them terribly confusing.

GoalGoals refer to a broader strategy. They have been also called strategic directions, strategies, strategic goals, objectives (yes, sometimes I’ve seen the word objectives applied to what people mean by goals and vice versa). Often organizations simply label goals by a one or two word noun such as: education, fiscal, enforcement, etc. I don’t recommend this as a good practice because it is too broad and not motivating. One word goals essentially tell you very little except you are going to focus somehow on that one word. Sometimes goals are mixed up with vision (which is a whole other topic but generally vision is a desired outcome – what you want to be in place in five years for example).

Here are some common characteristics of goals:

  • A goal is meant to depict action so should start with an action verb.
  • A goal is broad and could incorporate many different component parts.
  • A goal is not measurable or specific.A goal ideally is somewhat inspiring.
  • A goal is something in which everyone in the organization can imagine themselves participating.
  • A goal typically will take your team or organization a year or several years to accomplish.

Here are some examples of reasonably well-stated goals:

  • clear-and-brightStrengthen relationships between headquarters and our partners
  • Foster greater strategic, technical and relational coordination amongst team members
  • Grow with our partners
  • Clarify and reaffirm our purpose
  • Monitor resources to maintain high quality services
  • Articulate and respond quickly to staff needs
  • Promote programs internally and externally
  • Pursue fair and equitable healthcare practices
  • Develop proactive, collaborative partnerships
  • Design for livability for all residents.

Notice they start with a verb, are broad, will take quite some time to accomplish and could be accomplished in a variety of ways. There is no one correct path to accomplishing goals.

Here are some ways you can develop your goals:

  • It’s helpful to have a conversation that helps people be imaginative, comprehensive and inclusive in their goal setting. I would first recommend reviewing your previous year’s goals and assessing how well you have moved forward on these goals. Then you might have people brainstorm a number of actions that they would like to see occur over the next year. Cluster similar actions. Then look for the common words and intent of these actions and brainstorm various goal like phrases. It’s sometimes very useful to give your group a list of many different action verbs. Download our action verb list here.

What are objectives?

ObjectivesObjectives in our framework are a subset of goals. They are specific measurable ways you will work to achieve your broader goals. Objectives are sometime called SMART. That stands for Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Time bound.

Here are some common characteristics of objectives:

  • An objective is a quantifiable measurable outcome.
  • An objective moves you towards a broader goal.
  • An objective aims to be completed in months or possibly a year.
  • An objective will take the time, effort and resources of several people to accomplish it.

Here are some examples of objectives:

  • Complete refinancing of our debt by December 31, 2015.
  • Identify 5 new niche markets by year end.
  • Articulate detailed job descriptions and timelines for our warehouse staff by January 15, 2016.
  • Achieve accurate completion of timesheets through random checks each quarter.
  • Provide orientation and mentoring opportunities to new Board members within 3 months of Board recruitment.
  • Develop a comprehensive guide for all our contractors that is updated yearly.
  • Maintain a fair and impartial claims processing system as determined by yearly client surveys.

Here are some ways you can develop your objectives:

Have a small group brainstorm all the possible outcomes they want to see in place within the next year related to each goal. Assess which of these outcomes will be most practical and most catalytic.  Choose a reasonable number for the resources you have in place.  Test them with a few people who will be implementing them.  Refine them as needed.

How do you make goals and objectives work really well?

The key thing is to create a context or foundation for your goals and objectives. Do your visioning before you set goals. What are you imagining will be in place ideally in five years or more if you are planning for a community or massive social change or environmental change project?

cloud-visionThen think about the obstacles to your vision. What really gets in the way of you accomplishing your vision? This is based on the ToP (Technology of Participation) strategic planning model and is brilliant in terms of creating strategic goals. Finally you create your goals based on moving toward the vision and simultaneously dealing with your obstacles to the vision.

If you do not have the time, at least do a mini assessment (e.g., a scan) of what is already in place that both help you achieve your goals and hinders you. One common easy tool is the SWOT. Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

If you have taken our prerequisite ToP course, come next week to our ToP Participatory Strategic Planning training.  It will help immensely.

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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