If you were to ask me about my goals in life, I’d say the same things a lot of other people would say: to pursue my passions, to fall in love, and to pass on my values to whatever family I’m fortunate enough to raise.
If you were to ask me my objectives, it’d be a little harder to answer. Do I know what I want? Yes. Am I absolutely sure of how to get there? Not at all.
Goals and objectives sound the same, but they’re actually quite different. Much like in the picture I painted above, I like to think of goals as the dreams, and objectives as the action plans. One is what you want, and the other is how you intend on achieving that.
As a project manager, you’re in charge of a lot.
What is the difference between a goal and an objective?
Goals paint the broader picture of what you're trying to accomplish. Objectives outline the specific steps you're planning to take to arrive at the end of a goal.
You help determine the problems within a team or company and set out on developing solutions. You man relationships, communication, budgets, and more.
And perhaps most importantly, your team relies on you to help accomplish your goals by adequately setting objectives.
Goals vs Objectives
In order to do your job as a project management professional most efficiently, it’s important to understand exactly how each of these terms plays a role in your role.
Let’s break it down.
What is a Goal?
We’ll start with goals. They’re more than the points in a soccer game. Rather, goals set a destination.
Say you’re going on a road trip across the United States. You might set your goal as, “drive from New York to California.” Here, you’ve set a starting point and a destination. What does this goal do? It helps define the direction you and your team (or road trip buddies, in this case) need to work toward. It establishes the “what” so that you can continue to decipher the “how.”
Once you’ve set a goal, it has an affect on your team. It makes it easier for them to understand what they should be working toward. Is your goal traffic-oriented? Do you have to generate a certain amount of revenue this quarter to stay afloat? Is it imperative to increase your social media engagements with customers and vendors alike?
Settings goals and making them visible across your team creates a shift in group focus. Once a team knows what they’re working together toward, they can begin making the necessary adjustments both in mind and in manner to help make that goal real.
Related: Looking for some help when setting your goals? We've created a goal setting worksheet that will walk you through the process.
Goals are longer term and present an idea of what one wishes to accomplish over time. A goal does not always present a timeline, but rather a desire.
One issue with goals is often their abstract nature. Sure, you know you want to become more disciplined in your fitness routine, but how do you plan to do this? Goals create an awareness of a desire or, in the case of professional tasks, a need, but they don’t necessarily solve things. That’s where objectives come in.
What is an Objective?
An objective is much more specific than a goal.
They also tend to span over a shorter period of time. Whereas goals are abstract desires, objectives span over short to mid-length periods of time as a person seeks to accomplish their objectives in a timely manner.
If we reuse the road trip analogy, then your objectives are the tiny steps you take in between your beginning and endpoint. So you might plan out your routes, make arrangements for the nights you want to stay in hotels, and look at tourist attractions along the way.
While arriving in California is your end goal, the smaller increments in which you travel along the way are your objectives. They are the tactical pieces that add up to create the whole picture.
When discussing objectives within the context of project management, it’s important to be specific. Say you manage a team of proofreaders and together, you have to proofread 10,000 pages of copy in one week.
What are the small, tactical objectives you can take in order to accomplish this goal over time? What are the project milestones? You can delegate a very specific number of pages to each employee each day. You can ask for hourly, digital updates regarding the number of pages that have been proofread. You can speed up or slow down over time depending on your team’s progress.
How Objectives and Goals Work Together
While these concepts sound contrasting, they are actually quite complimentary and work best when employed in tandem.
As a project manager, you’re in charge of strategizing and showing management how exactly a project or assignment is going to succeed. A good way of visualizing success is by showing management your goals and your objectives.
Goals show a desire and an understanding that there needs to be a change or a change of focus. Objectives show practicality and the understanding that goals aren’t accomplished without a well-thought-out strategy.
By combining the two, you’re able to communicate to your team that you see the emotional drive to accomplish something, while also understanding the undertaking.
Relating to project management
As a project manager, you’re responsible for communicating both the goals and the objectives. However, you’re not always alone in deciding them.
Before a new project begins, a team of project managers, managers, administrators or stakeholders often sit down to discuss what needs to get done. This includes clarifying goals and objectives or communicating goals so a project manager can determine objectives.
Once these initial steps have been taken and the team has decided what they’re going for, it’s a project manager’s job to put together the action steps.
If you’re new to project management or simply would like to know more about the steps that follow goal creation, check out our content that answers the question, in our recent all-in-one guide on everything project management.
If you’re ready to dive in, get organized, and reach your goals and accomplish objectives in stride, check out our project management software research hub. Real-user reviews can help you decide which tool could most benefit your team.
Grace Pinegar is a lifelong storyteller with an extensive background in various forms such as acting, journalism, improv, research, and content marketing. She was raised in Texas, educated in Missouri, worked in Chicago, and is now a proud New Yorker. (she/her/hers)