Many people use the words “goal” and “objective” interchangeably to refer to any forward-looking statement of intention. In the personal development context, you may describe losing 10 pounds, saving $500 or adopting a vegan diet as either goals or objectives. Some business leaders may refer to increasing profits by 10 percent or slashing costs by 5 percent as both goals and objectives in a single conversation. Certainly there are similarities between goals and objectives. However, goals are not the same thing as objectives. Crucial differences exist between these two concepts. It’s important to understand the differences between goals and objectives, as well as how they can work together to improve an organization’s likelihood of success,
A goal is a statement of intention, and an objective is a narrower and more detailed action that will help you achieve the goal.
A goal is typically broader in scope than an objective, but not as comprehensive as a statement of purpose. Goals are designed to achieve an intention concerning one or more specific business functions, such as profits, costs, human resources, operations or IT.
For example, a non-profit organization may set a goal of “serving 2,000 low-income families in the greater metropolitan area over the next 10 years.” A manufacturing business may adopt a goal of “cutting expenses across the board by 25 percent compared to the last fiscal year.” A services business – for example, a law firm – may decide to “bill 100 more hours next month.”
As these examples of goals illustrate, a goal may be either short-term, like next month, or long-term which could be over the next ten years. Goals may deal with financial operations such as profits or costs, or they may be transactions, customers or contracts. Goals establish both a clear direction forward and the desired endpoint.
As a result, goals help a business or organization make progress, grow and develop. However, on their own, goals are insufficient to guide the day-to-day actions of employees or members of organizations. Therefore, the business or group and its leaders will find it difficult to reach that goal without setting objectives.
Objectives help translate goals into actionable items, tasks, needs and project plans. With objectives, managers can create project timelines and decide on specific deliverables and budget resources including employees, time and funds. Consequently, objectives are based on the goals they seek to accomplish but they are more specific statements of how an individual, company or organization can attain the goal in question.
Goals are broader statements than objectives, but a company’s statement of purpose conveys the overarching vision of the business, which is usually established by a CEO or board. The statement of purpose is in alignment with a company’s mission, more than its goals.
Goals can and should be aligned with the company’s purpose, but they are not the same thing. For example, a company may have a purpose of “eradicating childhood hunger.” How the company will fulfill that lofty purpose depends on the goals the company establishes. It may set a goal of “launching a new pest-resistant strain of seeds for eight popular vegetables.” Or it may establish a goal of “investing 50 percent more into research and development.”
Purpose motivates and inspires, but it does not give effective guidance about how a plan should be implemented, pursued or fulfilled. Companies also need good goals and SMART objectives.
The SMART framework applies to both goals and objectives. SMART is an acronym that outlines the basic characteristics of a good, workable objective. The acronym stands for:
- Specific: The objective should be specific and detailed.
- Measurable: It must be measurable so it can be objectively assessed.
- Attainable: Employees and others must be able to reach the objective.
- Realistic: Realistic objectives are more likely to be met.
- Timely: There should be a time frame and deadline associated with the objective.
Moreover, the fewer the objectives, the better. Too many objectives can diffuse a team or employee’s efforts and energies. This scattered focus can lead to a lower likelihood of success on any single objective. However, objectives can also be further broken down into sub-objectives in order to help manage a project's progress.
Objectives should further the company’s progress towards the associated goals. Collectively, a goal’s objectives form a complete game plan. In other words, when all the objectives are met, the company should have successfully attained the overall goal.
Typically, goals are set first by upper management or leadership. Objectives are then designed carefully to feed into and further progress towards those goals.
If the goal is to retain existing customers and increase sales, the objective must help the company get closer to achieving that goal. One such objective might be to implement a new customer service initiative for existing customers which improves their level of satisfaction, bolsters your reputation and inspires more sales. That objective – a new customer service program with associated staff training – should be set out in writing in as much detail as possible. For example, who would conduct this training and which staff would receive it? What’s the target deadline for creating the training syllabus and for conducting the sessions?
Once the objective of conducting these new training sessions is met, the company is further along the pathway towards achieving their goal of retaining more customers.