Goals vs. Objectives: The Secret Ingredient That Explains The Difference
Why is there confusion about the difference between goals and objectives?
A colleague and I were recently collaborating on a new effort, and there was some confusion on the meaning of goals vs. objectives. To him, the words were interchangeable – perhaps a concern of formal semantics. Indeed, we could include other terms in our discussion: outcomes, benefits, mission, vision, purpose, etc. The nuances of how these terms relate is varied.
Why is this the case? First, in our initial exposure to these concepts, our responsibilities and tasks are more or less defined, ideally with a correlated goal or objective. Sometimes, while our tasks and responsibilities may be defined, our organization or environment may lack any clear sense of purpose. Perhaps most damaging, our organization or environment may have defined goals or objectives, but lacks the accountability or discipline to act in alignment with them. This is a failure of integrity. In these contexts, any goal or objective can provide the necessary orientation and direction on a daily or weekly basis.
Second, often there are personal or organizational challenges that overshadow any concern that would meaningfully differentiate a goal with an objective. Even in a position of management or leadership, one’s role can simply be that of steering and communication in relationship to stated goals and objectives. Other concerns can quickly overwhelm.
A simple search can return a number of different interpretations on the difference between goals and objectives, some of which can be helpful. But there is a nagging feeling that it should be ‘common sense’. Why should a particular blog post or book be necessary to illuminate the difference, especially to something that can have a huge impact on the direction and effectiveness of one’s efforts?
Here is the secret ingredient: your team.
Your team should have a clear and “common sense” model that encapsulates goals, objectives, outcomes that serve its purpose. Depending on the size of the team (it could be just you), or whether it is a part of a larger effort or organization (or serving/partnering with other teams), different components of these orienting and decision factors may be inherited, shared, tweaked, emphasized, etc. But for goals and objectives to be effective, they must be shared, and there must be a shared understanding for how they work together – and how they work together.
It really doesn’t matter too much what the individual definitions are. As long as you have a shared or model/process, that's what matters. Dr. James T. Brown puts it something like this: 1) have a process, 2) follow the process, and 3) improve the process. The model or definition for goal or objectives should be “common sense” and provide just enough definition necessary to improve the accountability and discipline of an effort to improve. What does matter is that the definitions are shared. Without a shared understanding, accountability and discipline will suffer.
At an individual level, this means “managing oneself”. Have a disciplined intentional approach for fulfilling your responsibilities. If you are a member of an organization, using shared models and definitions is one way you can increase accountability, facilitate disciplined execution, and encourage organizational integrity. If you are on the leading edge of an effort that requires an enhanced program or project management, seek to partner with others with the same challenges to mature the shared ethos that will build a stronger organization capable of meeting its goals and objectives – whatever their definitions happen to be.