It is always interesting when I enter a conversation about strategy, because before long, the conversation turns to terminology. People spend hours discussing: What is a mission? What is a vision? What is a goal? What is an objective? That is forgivable because most people don’t live this terminology. So I bring my definitions, and once I define them, I ask clients not to squabble about definitions any more.
Here are my definitions for goals and objects:
Goals are the aspiration outcomes of a strategy (strategy with a Big “S”). They represent the end point of execution, not the execution itself. Goals are very broad.
Increase the retention of low income students by 50% over the 2015 benchmark.
Take 10% of Apples’ North American Market by 2017.
The first thing you will notice about a goal is it has numbers associated with it. Good goals include numbers. Some delta from where the organization is, to where it wants to be, expressed as a number. That number should be considered in light of the acronym “SMART” or Specific Measureable Attainable Realistic and Timely.
The goal is specific, it isn’t general about students, it says “low income students.” It is measureable, because the institution knows what its retention rate is, and 50% represents an improvement over the current situation. It is attainable. As this is a theoretical discussion, let’s assume we did our homework and this number is attainable based on, for instance, what other institutions have been able to do with similar demographics and budgets. This also makes it realistic, in that the area has sufficient low income students to draw from, for example. And it is timely, for a number of reasons, some of those might be funding opportunities from the state, surveys of what the community wants to attain, etc.
Some consider “SMART” goals as remnants of the industrial age, and no longer as relevant in the fast moving world lubricated by the Internet and its global connections. I would disagree. Some of the ideas, like “CLEAR,” which suggests goals should be Collaborative, Limited, Emotional, Appreciable and Refinable introduces language that already easily fits as qualifiers to SMART. Collaborative and emotional are cultural qualifiers that may not be universal, though very few objectives are delivered by individuals. Emotional implies a connection to an objective, while desirable, it may not always be possible. Limited appears as an integration to Realistic and Timely. Appreciable and Refinable target the goal itself, suggesting that they be able to be deconstructed into smaller goals, and refinable, implies change over time. I don’t disagree with the ideas, I’m just not convinced that another acronym is required to convey ideas that are more about how than the what.
Objectives are more specific. Objectives break a goal into a set of actions that can be achieved to support the goal.
This next list is just an example, as these will be very contextual for each organization, based on how the describe their work, and the work they do.
Create a tutoring program that ensures 90% of low income students pass their first year courses and limit dropped classes to 10% or less.
Develop a tiered mentoring program where are least 50 low income students become second tier mentors in the first year.
Goals and objectives differ from tactics or action plans because they stay above the how. But as you can see, objectives inherit the specificity and numerical measurement quality of the goal. An action plan drills into objectives by providing step-by-step tasks that support the achievement of the objective, and ultimately the goal, and thus the organization’s strategy. The actual steps for developing the tiered mentoring program is an action plan. The action plan is all about the how, with very detailed, integrated tasks aimed at making sure the objectives are achieved.
Now, all of this planning doesn’t just make the goal happen. Executing strategy is difficult. Goals and objectives should be undertaken as learning experiences. If the mission of the organization is “to be the top rated learning institution in our geographical area” then how the goal of retaining low income students ultimately contributes to that mission may not be clear. You won’t know until you measure its impact on the achievement of the mission. The same is true of objectives. If you achieve the objectives, they may or may not get you to your goal. You may need to do more of some things, less of others— or develop new objectives to replaces those that aren’t working.
Given reciprocality of goals and objectives, a goal should not be abandoned because it has not be achieved. It may be that the objectives associated with the goal have not proven out. While examining the objects, also take a look at the goal and see if any clarification is required, and double-check that it still aligns with the organization’s mission. With rapid changes in society, technology and politics, it has become increasingly necessary to let go of goals that no longer fit, regardless of how well they may be articulated. Making the investment in time and dollars may no longer actually contribute to the strategic intent. The ideas behind CLEAR get integrated into SMART by constantly monitoring for alignment and efficacy. When a goal falls out of alignment, it’s time to have
Note: A confusing semantic issue with goals and objectives comes from the fact that they are, in programming parlance, overloaded terms. Which means, that in different contexts they mean different things. So when you get down to a basic task, like “create a newsletter” in support of an objective, that “task” has its own goals and objectives. The newsletter, for instance, needs to be readable and have a good subscriber base so the messages it is meant to convey can be delivered to the right audience. Those are worthy objectives, but they aren’t strategic, unless your business is writing newsletters. In this example, the newsletter is an tactic, part of the action plan, in support of one or more larger goals. If there is any confusion, work with your team understand Strategic Goals (and use caps) and other goals (use lower case). The typography can act as a guide and a reminder.
Daniel W. Rasmus
Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.