Project Management

Master Goals and Objectives and Know the Difference

The word “goal” and the word “objective” are often used interchangeably, but as Pearl Zhu argues, these two concepts are about as similar as you and your mother. The point is to understand that an objective is the ultimate desired outcome. Mission accomplished. A goal might be aimed at that ultimate end, but it only gets you so far. It takes a lot of little goals by many different people to accomplish the big objective.

Goals vs. Objectives

To be more business-specific, an objective is something established by senior management. A goal is something relegated to employees. By that definition, an objective is only as achievable as the sum of goals assigned to employees. Therefore, it is the individuals on the team who are actually responsible for achieving a given objective.

Mastery through ‘Freedom to Manage’

How can a clear understanding of goals vs. objectives lead to their mastery? Zhu equates mastery with what she calls “freedom to manage”:

Times have changed – It is the VUCA digital/knowledge era [where] higher volatility, uncertainties, complexity, and ambiguities render most [business] tools ineffective – some have fallen by the wayside entirely. Moreover, knowledge people require a different way to work. The fix for both is the same: a different design of management with a new set of tools. What is needed today is strong front end decision making and a large dash of ‘freedom to manage’, instead of out-of-date [and] disjointed top down management paradigms.

Barriers to Mastery

On the other hand, the two greatest barriers to mastering goals and objectives are 1) poor communication styles and 2) project complexity. Poor communication is often a result of mismatched “schools” of performance management that end up creating “multilingual conversations” and misunderstandings. Project complexity tends to obscure from the employee their greater contribution to the project objective, and hence undermines their sense of purpose.

Zhu likens mastery of objectives to a sporting event. Each goal or point adds up to a win. But good project managers, like good coaches, must know when their current strategy is not going to get them the win and to revise their game plan far in advance of the final quarter (i.e. – assign a new set of goals).

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