Businesses, employees, managers, take your pick: every entity needs a plan for success. Of course, a plan can take many forms. Consider a “back of the napkin” personal timeline or a formal business development document. The best plans combine two fundamental concepts: goals and objectives.
Goals and objectives may appear similar on the surface, there is a great deal of nuance that sets them apart. In the workplace, that nuance becomes incredibly important. Understanding the differences between goals and objectives is fundamental to any planned success. And that is what we intend to lay out in this article.
What Are Goals?
Think of goals as long-term, overarching aims. Goal is that dream – achieve it and your ultimate vision of success becomes reality.
As a general rule, goals share the following general characteristics:
- Forward-thinking and long-term
- Broad, general, qualitative or intangible
- Not always quantifiable
- Emphasis on the ultimate end result
- Provide strategic direction
Goals In The Context Of The Workplace
In the workplace, a company’s mission statement is often an excellent place to find goals. Of course, mission statements typically speak to the strategic direction of the entire company. For example, a nutrition and health supplement company may strive to “become a global leader in the health food revolution.”
Now, if you’re an employee or manager, chances are that a goal like “become a global leader…” may not feel particularly relevant. Instead, your targets should be more narrow in scope and specific to your particular area of focus. For example, a marketing department for a major retailer may strive to “create approachable content for customers.”
Both of these examples—“become a global leader” and “create approachable content”—work to provide general direction.
What Aren’t Goals?
You’ve undoubtedly noted that the above examples are difficult to quantify. Goals, by their very nature, are difficult to track. There are typically no metrics or data points you can look up to judge progress. Goals are much in line with the idea of “this is our dream: we’ll know when we’re there.”
How Do I Go About Forming Good Goals?
The beauty of goals is that they are, by definition, as perfectly open-ended as you want them to be. Goals can cover everything ranging from personal improvement to workplace productivity.
For example, a business may have goals such as:
- Grow profitability
- Improve customer retention
- Become the recognized leader in a particular industry
An individual, on the other hand, may have goals such as:
- Become a leader in my specific field
- Build a network of professional peers
- Retire by the age of 50
All of these goals are long-term, open-ended, and “big picture.” Goals portray your mindset and the overall direction. What goals lack are actionable, practical steps to success: that’s where objectives come in.
What Are Objectives?
Think of objectives as quantifiable, concrete, and specific aims. These are short-term accomplishments – e.g. increase quarterly sales by growing in APAC – that contain narrow, well-defined targets.
As a general rule, objectives share the following characteristics:
- Short-term aims
- Specific, narrow, and concrete
- Easily trackable and quantifiable (with the help of Key Results, KPIs or KRAs)
- Emphasis on achieving an immediate or short-term aim, “means to an end”
- Provide actionable, practical direction
Objectives In The Context Of The Workplace
In the workplace, if goals are strategic objectives are more tactical. They tend to follow the strategic direction laid down by their parent goal. While the objectives can still be qualitative, they are narrow in their scope compared to a goal. Objectives may rely on other factors (such as key results, KPIs or KRAs) to measure their success. For example, a sales team with a goal of increasing quarterly sales by focusing on APAC knows exactly what their next steps should be.
In this case, the objective will be complemented by relevant key results, KPIs or KRAs. For example, a key result could be 10% increase in new customer sales in APAC. This becomes an integral part of the organisation’s execution strategy & is easily measured. Find some OKR examples here.
Tip: It’s easy to turn your key result into a question to gauge success or failure. For example: “In August, I want to write 500 words per day.” As a question on this KR: “Did I write 500 words per day in August?” Answer the question and you’ll know if you accomplished the objective.
How Do I Go About Forming Good Objectives?
The key to forming good objectives is to be “SMART.” The famous acronym stands for:
At their core, objectives must be specific. Specific objectives are narrow, action-based aims. For example, “become a thought leader in employee management programs” is not specific, nor is it narrow. But “acquire new corporate clients by the end of the fiscal year” is extremely specific. The more specific the objective, the easier it is to measure. For example, ’10 new corporate clients from the US are onboarded’ becomes a measurable key result on the above objective.
As mentioned above, the best work objectives are narrow in scope. Narrow work objectives must also be measurable. It should be as clear as daylight when achievement of an objective is a success or a failure. For that, you want to use (preferably) existing metric/s with which you already familiar.
For example,say your objective is to “self publish an ebook before the summar starts”. Then your measurable metric could be – ‘write 500 words every day’. This key result – the amount of words written per day, is quantifiable, assessable and completely relevant.
Tip: Don’t reinvent the wheel. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, do not go out of your way to invent new, fancy metrics to make your key results seem more exciting. Stick with what you and your employees already know and use.
Objectives must be attainable. In this sense, “attainable” addresses the practicality of a stated objective. Ask yourself if a particular work objective is realistic and work from there. For example, imagine you work for a sales department that posts an average of 4% growth in sales per year. An attainable, realistic key result might be to shoot for 6-8% growth. Beyond that, you are setting yourself for failure right from the outset.
You know better than most whether or not a particular objective is attainable. Pushing for unattainable goals is a bit of a mixed bag. Imagine an unrealistic goal, like doubling your sales in a single quarter in an established industry. On one hand, failing to meet the objective (but still posting awesome sales numbers) is certainly still a great result. On the other hand, consistently failing to meet stated work objectives may be discouraging to company morale.
Attainability is a balancing act. Strive for realistic, achievable and at the same time challenging objectives and enjoy the rewards.
Relevancy is of the most overlooked—but vital—steps in forming quality work objectives. If a work objective is relevant, it must tie into an overall strategic long-term goal. The objective must be in line with a broader plan of action.
Think of relevancy as another way of asking “why” a work objective exists. If the objective is well-constructed, it shouldn’t be a mystery.
If a particular work objective isn’t immediately relevant to an overarching goal, it’s time to reconsider.
Objectives need specific endpoints. Deadlines, due dates, checkpoints: call them what you will, but objectives must adhere to a timeline appropriate for the job at hand.
Of course, a time-based objective doesn’t mean there is no room for flexibility or adaptability. Few things ever go entirely according to plan, workplace timelines included. Staff get bogged down with unexpected tasks, workers take time off, and people get burned out.
Much like attainability, “timely” is another balancing act. On one hand, you need to keep yourself and others accountable for objective completion. On the other, you need to maintain enough flexibility in a work schedule to allow for the unexpected.
Tip: Try striving for “comfortable urgency.” Ideally, an objective should have just enough time so that everyone’s daily tasks will contribute to its success in a meaningful way.
Again, it’s a balancing act: the more time you build into an objective, the less pressing it becomes. Too little time? The workplace becomes a hellish landscape of sweating, frenzied employees and subpar work.
How Do Goals and Objectives Work Together?
Goals provide the strategic orverarching direction. Objectives become the narrow & tactical guiderails. The metrics then are the measurable defnitions of success or failure for the objective. Where a goal defines your broad strategic direction, an objective is a checkpoint on the road to success.
Regardless of your position in a company, goals and objectives always work together in this same manner. You reach the end result (the goal) by completing regular achievements (the objectives)/
As a general rule, goals should guide the scope of your objectives. If your goal is to retire by the age of 50, your objectives should work to accomplish that eventual aim. The moment your goal changes, you may need to rethink your individual objectives.
Goals and Objectives: The Overall Lesson
Far from being at odds with each other or being similar to each other, goals and objectives work together to accomplish a particular aim. Think of goals as your ultimate end result — a successful business, a leader in your field, the perfect dream home. To accomplish your goal, you construct objectives: practical, measurable steps to success.
Whether you’re working in management or as an employee, the lesson is the same. Goals define direction; objectives provide action. Use them together — it works!