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Goal vs. objective: what’s the difference? (and why it matters)

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What’s the difference between a goal and an objective?

If you thought they were synonyms, you’re not alone. Most people think that — including us, until a few years ago.

Which is why we’re here to clear things up.

We’ll start by saying they’re not the same thing, and that you shouldn’t use them interchangeably.

Why does it matter?

Because clarity is everything in project management.

In this article, we’ll go above and beyond a simple settling of “goal vs. objective.” We’ll teach you how to set smarter objectives and leverage modern technology to take your project from idea to desired outcome in record time.

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Goal vs. objective: what’s the difference? (and why it matters)

Goals are vague.

A goal provides context at a high-level for what you want the project to accomplish. Typically, they align with the company’s greater goals and vision statement.

A goal is the aim of a project. It’s the desired outcome you want to achieve, and it answers the simple question of “what do you want?”

In project management, that’s the first question you’ll ask your client or boss when beginning a new project.

Goals act as a North Star for your project. If everyone on the team understands the goal, they can keep that at the forefront of their minds when making critical decisions.

Goals are an essential part of life, but they only speak to the end results. They don’t tell you how you’re going to achieve them.

That’s why goals are best paired with objectives.

Goals and objectives are far from the same thing. Goals are often large, vague, and long-term. Objectives are specific, actionable steps, that get you closer to meeting your goals.

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Objectives are specific.

They clearly define what your team needs to do to achieve the overall goal.

Objectives provide context at a low-level that makes delivering the project easier, since they describe tangible products, outcomes, and deliverables.

Objectives set boundaries or constraints on what success looks like. Objectives answer the question, “how do you want it?” with it being the goal.

For instance, if we set a goal to get a human to Mars, then some objectives might be to:

  • Complete the mission by 2025.
  • Return the astronauts safely back to Earth.
  • Bring back soil samples of Martian dust and rocks for analysis.

Objectives like that provide structure to a project and get you closer to your ultimate goal.

Setting S.M.A.R.T. objectives

Speaking of structure, one of the best things you can do when setting objectives is to follow the S.M.A.R.T. framework, which provides more intention to your objectives by making them specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

With SMART objectives, your team can put together an iron-clad action plan that’s sure to align with your organization’s strategy and meet its project goal or desired outcome.

Let’s examine each facet of the S.M.A.R.T. framework a bit more closely:

Specific

Specificity means less room for error and more direction for your team.

A specific objective answers the question “what is to be done?” so your team knows the desired outcome and how to get there.

Perhaps more importantly, a specific objective will answer the question “how will you know it’s done?” which describes the result or end product of your project.

Ideally, your objective is so specific that anyone who reads it will interpret it the same way you intended. It’s a good idea to include numbers, statistics, and deadlines to add specificity to your task or action.

Measurable

A measurable objective answers the question “how do you know it meets expectations?”

It further defines your objective using some accessible terms such as quality, quantity, costs, deadlines, or frequency.

Measurable objectives let you know whether you’re making progress or not. It makes it easy to compare or evaluate against a defined standard.

Again, numbers are everything here. Having reports, dashboards, and/or a specific KPI make it easy to track your progress and report to stakeholders.

A frequency measurement, for example, could run on a daily or weekly basis. A quality measurement could describe the format, accuracy, or meet a specific guideline set by the project’s stakeholders.

Attainable

Also known as achievable, attainable answers the question, “can your team do it?”

Attainable blends realistic expectations with delivering satisfaction. Challenging yourself is good, but you don’t want to go overboard. You should strike a balance between making your team and your stakeholders happy.

An attainable objective may require you to push yourself a bit harder than normal, but it should still feel doable and not impossible.

It ultimately boils down to answering the question, “can it be done given the people, resources, and timeframe?”

Relevant

Relevant feels like an easy one, but it’s a bit existential in nature. It answers the question, “should it be done?” If so, why? And what will be the impact? A good guiding principle here is determining whether the objective aligns with the greater project and company strategy.

If you find the objective or task is achievable but doesn’t have the necessary relevance to warrant its completion, then you scrap it altogether. There’s no sense in setting an objective unless it gets you closer to your end goal or helps you complete another objective that does the same.

Time-bound

A time-bound objective answers the question “when will it be done?”

It refers to the objective’s scheduled checkpoints or endpoints. A time-bound objective provides a sense of urgency and helps measure whether an objective is on-time, late, or completed.

Some people also use time-bound as a way to measure how long a task takes to complete. That helps create your project’s schedule and accurately distribute tasks based on workload capabilities.

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What’s an example of a SMART objective?

Now that we’ve broken down how to create S.M.A.R.T. objectives, it’s time to show an example that really drives the point home.

Goal: boost the satisfaction levels for customers going through training at a property management SaaS company.

Objective: roll out a faster online case system that will replace email support by January 1st that cuts average response times to no more than 2 hours.

Now, let’s look at a breakdown of the objective and how, in one sentence, it meets the S.M.A.R.T. framework criteria:

  • The objective is specific because it points out exactly what will happen and by what date.
  • The objective is measurable because you can easily track the case response times to ensure they’re not going over the 2-hour mark on average.
  • The objective is achievable because a new case system provides the means to help clients more quickly than email did before.
  • The objective is relevant because an online case system directly contributes to lowering response times and therefore improving customer satisfaction.
  • The objective is time-bound because you’ve set a deadline that helps the team prioritize the tasks necessary to achieve the objective and, ultimately, the goal.

Crush your goals and objectives with monday.com

Setting goals is easy.

Setting objectives is a bit harder.

The hardest part is putting in the work and tracking your progress.

That’s where monday.com comes in.

What is monday.com, you ask?

A great question.

monday.com is a digital workspace — a complete Work OS that helps you stay on top of your goals, your objectives, and the daily tasks that help you achieve both.

The beautiful dashboards make it easy to see any progress toward your goal at a glance.

Dashboards show progress on your team's objectives in a colorful and easy to understand fashion.

Our library of 200+ custom templates makes it easy to get started.

Try breaking down your objectives into a format your whole team can easily follow with our Quarterly Objectives template:

Objectives in monday.com are set at any frequency you want. Quarterly objectives help provide a north star as you work toward your yearly goals.

Beyond dashboards and templates that make it easy to collaborate, monday.com has a wealth of other features you’re sure to find useful.

They include…

  • 30+ drag and drop column types that make it easy to customize the look and workflow of your objective and task list.
  • 8 unique data visualizations, including workload and Gantt charts that make it easy to visualize who’s working on what and how you’re making progress on your objectives.
  • Limitless automation recipes that eliminate human error and cut down on manual work so that you can focus energy on achieving your ultimate goal.
  • 40+ integrations so your team always has access to the data they need to complete their specific objective.

What’s your next objective?

Now that you know goals and objectives aren’t the same things, you can tell your friends.

Together, we can rid the world of misinformation once and for all. Cue the dramatic music…

Or maybe you walked away with some actionable tips to set better objectives that get you closer to your desired outcome and make you look good to your team and stakeholders.

No matter your intention, just know that monday.com has your back. Get started today with a no-hassle, 14-day free trial.

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