Mastering the basics of project management: Goal and Objectives Settings

In this article let’s talk about goal setting. Goal setting involves establishing specific, measurable and time-targeted objectives. In business, goal setting has the advantages of encouraging participants to put in substantial effort and, because every member has defined expectations set upon him or her (high role perception), little room is left for inadequate effort going unnoticed.

Project Managers cannot be constantly able to drive motivation and keep track of an employee’s work on a continuous basis. Goals are therefore an important tool for managers since goals have the ability to function as a self-regulatory mechanism that acquires an employee a certain amount of guidance Shalley, 1995 and Locke and Latham (2002) have distilled four mechanisms through which goal setting is able to affect individual performance:

  1. Goals focus attention towards goal-relevant activities and away from goal-irrelevant activities.
  2. Goals serve as an energizer; higher goals will induce greater effort while low goals induce lesser effort.
  3. Goals affect persistence; constraints with regard to resources will affect work pace.
  4. Goals activate cognitive knowledge and strategies which allows employees to cope with the situation at hand.

What are objectives and goals?

Objectives are goal enablers and there are many types. Personal and professional, individual and team. They tell you where to aim your energies and give you long-term vision and short-term motivation to deal with critical tasks. Objectives are what needs to be done and organizations generally (but not always!) agree on these: “We are going to increase market share…reduce costs….improve customer satisfaction….”

Goals are the how — shorter term and more specific: “Each department in the unit will reduce administrative costs by 10% the next quarter…we will each make 12 cold calls by the end of this week.” 

Within the organization, objectives come from two sources:

  1. From higher in the chain of command or other parts of the organization. You may also receive objectives from support staff such as finance, legal, procurement, etc. In these cases, your role is primarily to seek clarity and to secure understanding. In most cases, involving employees is unnecessary.
  2. From within the work group, yourself, or customers. It’s good to have the collaboration of others for these objectives. Employees, customers, other managers or departments improve your objectives by:

– bringing more and often unique information forward
– offering different perspectives
– creating buy-in on the objectives that are created

In these cases, the project  manager serves two key functions. To ensure that the objectives:

  • Fit within the frame work of the larger organization and your corporation. That is, the objectives of the sub-unit nest or fit within the objectives of the larger unit, and are not in conflict in any way.
  • Make sense. Are they legitimate? Are they reasonable but also challenging? Do they serve our customers’ interests?

Clear objectives provide structure to an organization and you and your team will need to have a clear understanding of your own objectives before you begin to collaborate with others. Review your objectives frequently and adjust them if necessary. Objectives that are important to you will give you more enjoyment in your business and personal life.


While objectives set the tone for where the organization is going and what it hopes to achieve, goals provide the how; specific directions in a “SMART” way. To decrease the frequency of creating goals that are confusing, unfocused and don’t have direct impact on the business, I recommend the use of SMART guidelines during the Goal Setting process.

  1. Being Specific about your goals helps focus business needs into a realistic picture of the desired future state. A specific goal has a much greater chance of being accomplished than a general goal.
  2. Adding Measurable metrics to your goals reduces ambiguity about the outcome of the goal and reduces subjectivity when judging the degree to which a goal has been successfully accomplished. When you measure your progress, you stay on track, reach your target dates, and experience the exhilaration of achievement that spurs you on to continued effort required to reach your goal.
  3. Aligned goals are goals that add value to both the organization and the individual. It is easy to understand why aligned goals matter and how achieving them leads to higher motivation as you understand how your work is contributing to the bigger organization.
  4. Realistic goals are more likely to be completed as planned. Checking on resources, capacity or conditions required for success in advance helps reduce barriers to accomplishment. To be realistic, a goal must represent an objective toward which you are both willing and able to work.
  5. Timeliness is a business-critical driver of success. Stating the timeframe in which the goal will be started, worked upon and accomplished drives a sense of urgency which makes the goal a reality. A goal should be grounded within a time frame. SMART is the instrument to apply in setting your goals and objectives

People will look to you to set direction, establish goals, and help define the purpose of their work. This isn’t to say that you are expected to do all of it by yourself. Often goals or business objectives are passed down to you from higher up in the organization. Employees have thoughts, too, on where their work should lead. Bottom line — you can pass on goals and/or objectives from other sources, create your own or work with others to define them.

What practical steps can help me realize my objectives?

Here are a dozen things you can do to stay on track toward achieving your objectives:

When a task calls for efforts from several parts of the organization, collaboration is required; this means taking a good look at the organization’s objectives and goals. You and your team may be interpreting them one way, but other teams and other parts of the organization may see things differently. What should you do when your team interprets an objective as “doing it fast” and sets your goals accordingly, and a collaborating team sees the objective as “doing it with high quality?” How can you get this project underway? people paddling canoe in different directions

First, identify your real objectives and don’t confuse them with how they’re measured. Reducing cycle time or improving quality can be measured in different ways. Get input from your team to identify different ways to track and measure your goals as you progress toward your objective. Always  talk with your project manager about your organization’s “hot buttons” and agree on what must be accomplished.

Next, gain a thorough understanding of the other team’s objectives and goals. Remember, these are your colleagues. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that you know what they want or that they are unwilling to cooperate. And, don’t confuse their objectives with how they’re measured. When it is appropriate, allow all teams to collaborate on tactical measures. What people demand is not necessarily what they must have to be satisfied.

What are the three basic types of goals and when are they appropriate?

There are 3 basic types of goals:

      1. “Pure Rational” which tend to be clear and specific
      2. “Direction Planning” which provide general direction, and
      3. “Muddling Through” which focus on reacting successfully to immediate concerns

Different people and different situations can require different types of goals.

1. Rational Goals: In business, we most often use the “pure rational” approach to goals. Rational goals are clear and definite. They are numerical, measurable statements constructed along “SMART” guidelinesA general target of “getting in shape” is fine, but that’s more like an objective. You are more apt to follow through with “join Murphy’s Gym and work out 3 days a week so I can run in the Corporate 5K this summer.” A variation of the old journalists’ trick can help you to construct SMART goals:

  • Who: Who is involved?
  • What: What do I want to accomplish?
  • Where: Where’s this going to take place?
  • When: When will this goal be completed?
  • Which: Which requirements and constraints apply?
  • Why: Why am I doing this? (specific reasons, purpose or benefits of accomplishing the goal)

2. Direction and Domain Planning: Sometimes the specific goal is not known, but the person’s organization or domain are known. Direction-planning goal statements lack the specificity of rational goals. Direction planning answers the question, “What do you want to accomplish?” but doesn’t answer many of the other SMART elements included in rational goals such as “How much?” and “By when?” Goals like this are often set by upper management who buck them down. It is then up to the rest of the organization to put some flesh on the bones and figure out the “how” and “who.”

Look at these goals:

“We need to increase customer awareness of our new products.”
“We need to be leaner. That means reducing costs.”
“We need to execute, execute, execute.”

Not very precise, are they? Direction planning is best for the long range, when outcomes are not predictable, or when others will need to interpret and tune the goal. Domain planning is often used in higher levels of management to give lower levels flexibility in working out the specific action required. Direction planning can be used to address topics such as quality and cost, but also more abstract subjects such as attitudes and behavior. These goals are often preferred by intuitive, creative, flexible, independent people.

3. “Muddling Through”:  In 1988 a party of amateur climbers became stranded in a storm on Mount Rainier. Some were believed injured, but because of nightfall and poor weather, rescue operations were halted. Three mountain-rescue climbers set out voluntarily to find the stranded group.  A reporter on the scene asked one of the rescuers what he planned to do. His reply: “Whatever we can.”

Goal setting can be simply “muddling through.” That doesn’t mean, though, a sense of panic or mindless activity. It may be that the goal is unclear, unknown, or the situation is changing so rapidly that a clear direction is not obvious. It tends to be used in crisis situations. Consider the case of an actual organization being re-missioned and downsized. At one of its meetings, an employee asked the question that was on everyone’s minds: “What should we do?” The manager calmly replied, “Keep working.” After a brief pause, he added, “We’ll figure this out as we know more.”

As you might surmise, muddling through works best with people who are comfortable with ambiguity and change. When the environment is in flux and goals are uncertain, muddling through keeps activity going and maintains momentum until more clarity and higher-level goals can be established.
When should you use the different types of goals?

As a manager you’ll use all three types of goals. As a rule, “hard” business or technical topics lend themselves to more rational and concrete goals. The matrix below can help you in analyzing the situations you’re facing.

Finally, some tips and traps to avoid:


  • Sometimes objectives from higher up the organization, won’t seem appropriate to you. If you are given one that you think is off the mark — first, make sure you understand it correctly. If you still think it’s wrong, negotiate. Be reasonable and make your case in a business-like way. If you can’t move the mountain, don’t waste time. Know when to say, “Yes, sir!” or “Yes, ma’am!” and go on from there.
  • If you’re unable to create goals or unsure whether your goals make sense, perhaps the answer is benchmarking. Benchmarking is the process of finding a model with which to compare your design or progress. 
  • If you’re setting goals with your work group or team, you can use the same general process used for creating a Code of Conduct or a Common Purpose. 


  • Setting too many goals for work groups or individual employees. The highest output occurs when people are focused. Fewer goals creates more focus. Keep it simple.
  • “You get what you measure” goes the saying. If you’re not careful, you can have the correct goal but the wrong measurements. For example, a customer help-line manager noticed that calls were not being answered. She set the goal: “All calls answered” and she set the measurement: “Minutes of waiting time and number of hang ups.” Her people responded to the measurements, not the goal. They answered more calls — but they gave less thorough help to customers so that the help desk could get on to the next call quicker. The result? More customer complaints. The measure should actually have been “customer satisfaction,” not “speed and quantity of calls taken.” 

If you have any tips or assistance that could improve the quality of this article, please do not hesitate to leave your comment.


12 thoughts on “Mastering the basics of project management: Goal and Objectives Settings

  1. Hi Nelson
    Would you be interested to do a series of 3 posts about Project Management and Goal and Objective setting, similar to this post?
    Please mail me if you are interested. I would like to publish it on my PM blog.
    Regards, Linky

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