Do objectives work?


Yesterday I had a clash of objectives and I had to prioritise. Okay that’s not quite how it was. I had a clear day and decided to use it to focus on one task which I did. It was only when I looked up at the end of the day, pleased with my progress, that I noted all the things that I’d forgotten to do. The other objectives I had neglected to deliver on.

The whole subject of objectives fascinates me and I’m still working on finding a definitive and helpful guide for both me, and you. When I find it you will have it as fast I can type but in the meantime, I shall share with you my meanderings towards it.

What I do know is that objectives can be difficult to develop, very difficult to share and impossible to remember – like yesterday.

The theory is simple. Be clear about what you have to achieve, then make it SMART.

I’m not convinced that’s enough.

Why do we need objectives in the first place? Aside of course that years of performance appraisals telling us we do.

They are for clarity, to make sure that everyone is on the same page and moving the same direction. But do they do that?

To establish the training needs, in short to carry out a Training Needs Analysis (TNA) I would read every single appraisal in the company and rarely would I have a clue what the objectives were asking for.

My favourite and the one that coincidentally ended up taking a lot of my time was the one word objective ‘Sparkle’. Under the heading of “how will I know that you’ve achieved it?” was written ‘I’ll just know’. This is an extreme example but very few of the objectives were easy to unpack. The story of this objective continued as the appraise was so confused and unsure of what needed to be done that I worked with them for six months on getting them to ‘Sparkle’. That is 5 months and 3 weeks of understanding the objective and one week delivering on it. and before you ask, Yes, I did have long chats with the person who set it. As soon as the objective was sorted then it was solved.

Although the whole thing was difficult I will always be thankful for the experience because it demonstrated so clearly how not having a clear objective was a problem and that when the objective, in this case, was clear so was the solution.

Victor Frankl discusses the purpose of the objective in his book “Man’s search for meaning” Victor was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. His best-selling book chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate, leading him to discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal ones, and thus, a reason to continue living.

In short it is not the what but the ‘why’ in our futures that makes a real difference, or gives meaning. How often have you seen ‘Why’ detailed in an objective?

The most useful example of objective writing that I’ve come across is described by Scott Burken in his book “ The Year Without Pants: and the Future of Work,” Scott Berkun is an American author and speaker. And he describes how, at the start of a project, the folks at WordPress write the launch document for it. Brilliant. Not only does this get you away from the discipline of having to describe your objective in one sentence but any launch document will describe in detail the ‘Why’ of a project and will favour that much more than the ‘what’.

I didn’t prioritise my work yesterday. I just forgot about my other objectives and looking at them now in the cold light of day I can see that I’m very clear on the ‘Why’ on the one thing I worked on, but the others not so much.

Writing effective objectives is about communication. Communicating to ourselves and others, and between teams exactly what we are working towards. Making sure that we are all on the same page. Without them we can all go off in very different directions or perhaps not even do them at all. But without a great deal of care we can do the same when we have them. They are crucial but they need work and I am going to keep working at them because they are a foundation for success.

Bridget Marchi is a learning and development consultant, executive coach and mediator. With over 25 year’s experience in publishing and online fashion she is passionate about working with people to develop strong foundation skills that will support them through their career. Whilst she has extensive experience of delivering classroom style she now offers online learning options with The Time Management ToolBox and Steps to Success, a self-coaching programme for long term success (click the link to get the early bird offer of just £20 – less than half price). She has also published The Management Jigsaw, a management induction course in a book.