I’m often surprised by the number of organizations that seem to confuse the concept of goals and objectives. In fact, when asked, “What is the difference between goals and objectives?” my experience has shown that many people give a response similar to the following:

“Well, it depends on how you define them. But essentially goals and objectives are the same thing. It’s just a semantics difference.”

Please pardon my disagreement.

In the Drivers Model – our framework for strategic planning – we make the following distinction between goals and objectives:

Goals Broad, long-term aims that define accomplishment of the mission.
Objectives Specific, quantifiable, realistic targets that measure the accomplishment of a goal over a specified period.

Let’s take a look at a simple example. In our work with a non-profit membership association, they defined the following mission statement:

Our Mission
To provide a forum for furthering the growth and professionalism of the meetings industry.

Sample Goals

Through the Leadership Strategies visioning process, the association arrived at their goals – six broad, long-term aims that defined accomplishment of the mission.

Our Goals
Education Provide educational opportunities for our members, at various levels to enhance professionalism and stay abreast of industry trends.
Community Outreach Provide funds and services to support the local community and provide a vehicle for organization recognition.
Membership Maximize membership growth, retention and involvement.
Organization Maintain sufficient organizational and financial resources to support programs.
Professionalism Promote meeting management as a viable and worthwhile career with an emphasis on the professional certification of members.
Networking Provide an atmosphere for the sharing of ideas with peers, planners and suppliers.

Testing Your Goals

Here are some things to consider when testing the quality of your goals.

  • As a group, do the goals represent all of the key areas of strategic focus for your organization?
  • Do you have a brief description that adequately explains the overall aim of each goal? Just stating a goal of “Membership” is not enough. Adding the words “maximize membership growth, retention and involvement” helps everyone to understand your intentions.
  • Are the goals global in scope and do they exclude references to specific quantities and time frames? Remember that goals should be broad and long-term. Generally, goals do NOT change over time. We save the specific quantities and time frames for objectives.

Sample Objectives

Once you have established your goals, you are ready to set objectives. As stated earlier, objectives are specific, quantifiable, realistic targets that measure the accomplishment of a goal over a specified period. Each goal has its own set of objectives. Take a look at the example below which defines the objectives for the membership goal. These were targets to be reached in three years.

Membership GoalMembership Objectives (3-year targets)
Maximize membership growth, retention and involvement. Increase membership from 500 to 650 Increase average meeting attendance to 250 Achieve 10% committee involvement

Testing Your Objectives

In order to test the quality of your objectives, consider the following points:

  • Are the objectives SMART? Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound
  • Do the objectives measure results and not just activity? This is an important quality check. Notice that there is not an objective that says, “Hold three membership drives annually.” While such an objective is specific, measurable, achievable, and time-bound, it is NOT a relevant measure of the goal. That is, “hold three membership drives” is not a measure of membership growth, retention, or involvement. Instead, it is measuring an activity to achieve growth instead of measuring growth results.
  • If all of the objectives are achieved, will the goal be accomplished?

Do You Need Both Goals and Objectives?

By our definition, goals are broad, long-term aims, while objectives are specific and measurable targets that define accomplishment of the goal. We believe you need to have both goals and objectives, regardless of what you call them. You might call them goals and objectives, or objectives and goals, or key performance areas and key performance indicators, or strategic intent and strategic outcomes, or any other wording. The key is that, regardless of what you call them, you need to have both: something broad that defines your aims and something specific and measurable that sets targets for a specific time period.

So why do you need both?

Let’s say you just had goals and no objectives. What would be the problem with just having broad aims and no measurable targets? Well, how would you know whether or not you’ve been successful? Suppose this organization just had the goal of maximizing membership growth, but no specific targets? At the end of three years how would they know whether they had maximized membership growth? Of course the answer is that, without specific, measurable targets, they probably wouldn’t know.

If objectives are so important, why not just have objectives? For what reason do you need goals? Think of it this way. Suppose the organization didn’t have goals, just operated based on measurable objectives that were set each year. This year, we might have objectives for membership growth and professionalism. Next year, we omit a membership target, but set targets for professionalism and networking. The following year we drop networking and just have targets for…you get the idea.

In essence, without broad aims, you set objectives in the areas that seem to be deficient from year-to-year. Yet are your targets covering everything that is important for your long-term success? This is what goals are for. The goals tell you what’s important to you. Your goals tell you the areas for which you need to have objectives. The objectives only tell you where you want to be at a given period in time in each goal area.

Does your strategic plan distinguish goals from objectives? Consider having one of our strategy consultants work with you to assess the quality of your plan and identify areas that can help you be more successful. Contact us for more information!