Recently I’ve noticed that the terms “goals” and “objectives” are being used interchangeably in requests for proposals (RFPs) that we receive. It struck me that writing an article that explains how to differentiate goals from objectives has been tried many times before, but the message isn’t being received. Clients still use them interchangeably, making it difficult to differentiate the broader, more strategic purpose of the project (Goals) from the steps that will be taken (Objectives) to fulfill that strategy. If you receive a request for project work, and your prospect has taken some liberties with the use of goals and objectives, here’s one way to translate them into clear statements you can use to help determine your approach to the project.
Distinguishing goals from objectives begins with their respective definitions. Once you are clear on what makes a goal and goal, and what makes an objective an objective you are halfway to your, uh, goal – translating unclear goals and objectives into clear statements that help you define your project approach. Let’s begin with goals.
A goal is the outcome you seek. Goals are:
- Declarative statements
- Broad & general (goals describe what the outcome is, not how you achieve it)
- Specify duration/time
- Singular (one goal per statement)
For example, one of my professional goals this business year is to improve my writing skills. Notice that this goal is a singular, brief statement (improve my writing skills) that is time based (this business year).
An objective is the task, or tasks, you will complete to achieve your goal. Objectives are:
In order to improve my writing skills this business year (goal) I will write and publish (specific) a Cognition article in each quarter of the year (measurable, actionable, realistic, & time based).
Goals are the outcomes we seek. Objectives are the steps we take to bring our goals to life.
With a clear understanding of goals and objectives, it is now time to apply your knowledge to requests for your services. As an agency you have no doubt received an RFP. At Happy Cog, we receive them regularly and they’re all fairly standard. We spend a fair amount of time dissecting the request to ascertain the type of project opportunity we’re being invited to bid on. This is the time to look for clear goals and objectives, or identify the questions you’ll pose to your prospective client if these components aren’t clear. Ultimately, you want your RFPreview to yield a one-page project brief that captures the goals, objectives, and any relevant requirements of the project. You can use this information in a follow up conversation with the prospective client, so clearly the RFP review is a necessary step in this process. It ensures you’ve accurately assessed their business needs and can begin planning your approach.
Start with the project overview
The best RFPs will call out their goals and objectives as a subsection of the project overview. Others will simply state their goals and objectives as part of the project overview content. If a specific subsection exists, you can begin evaluating the goals and objectives immediately. If the RFPdoesn’t have a specific subsection, your first step is to search for the terms directly. They are often included in the content of the document and may appear as a bulleted list. If you can’t identify the goals and/or objectives of the project, don’t hesitate to contact the issuing organization and ask them directly. Truth be told if they can’t articulate the goals and objectives for the project, you might ask yourself if this potential partner is a good fit for your agency.
Once you identify the goals and objectives in the RFP, you’ll want to determine if each goal and objective reflects the characteristics noted above. Can you identify the goals and objectives in the following RFP passage? How do goals and objectives relate to one another? Let’s explore this together.
Project X Website Redesign Request for Proposal
Company X is undergoing a complete change of its main website. The project will include the site’s hosting, content management system, information architecture, design and support.
We want to create a web experience that places our primary audiences’ needs, preferences, and behaviors at the center of the user experience. In so doing we want to create a unified and personalized web experience that adapts to users’ changing needs as their relationship with our business changes.
We’d also like to leverage key integration with social media, email, and other digital platforms to expand our reach to a younger demographic who doesn’t know we’re here, and so we can sell them things they will love.
- Company X must re-establish itself as an innovative place for making widgets
- Create a unified site experience to drive action through clear and compelling value propositions that benefit the users and support the business’s needs for recruitment, product sales, and charitable initiatives
- Create documents that educate internal stakeholders about the system being built
This is an example of how goals and objectives are used interchangeably. Although goals aren’t included as their own sub-section, it is clear, based on the structure of the project overview, where the goals reside. In the second paragraph the statement, “We want….” is a great clue. It’s declarative, one exclamation point shy of imperative, and the way the following statements are written reflects the characteristics of goals.
We want a web experience (broad & general) that places our primary audiences’ (singular) needs, preferences, and behaviors at the center of the user experience. (brief statement)
What about duration/time? Good catch, the sentence doesn’t include a time element. But its absence isn’t a disqualifier. For a web project it is safe to assume that the duration of the goal relates directly to the project’s duration. If you are unclear on this point, be sure to ask your prospective client for clarification. Understanding the time element of a goal will definitely shape your approach to the project. For example, if this goal transcends the project timeline you may deprioritize it in favor of those more connected to the site launch, or it may benefit you to take a more product-like approach in how you design and build the site.
As you read the rest of that paragraph you’ll note that following sentences contain the characteristics of a goal.
In so doing we want to create a unified and personalized web experience (broad & general) that adapts to users’ changing (singular) needs as they’re relationship with our business changes. (brief statement, non-specific reference to time )
We’d also like to leverage key integration with social media, email, and other digital platforms (broad & general) to expand our reach to a younger demographic (singular) who doesn’t know we’re here, so we can sell them things they will love. (brief statement)
Overall, the goals are clear and easily understood. The problematic content lies with the stated objectives. There is one objective that maintains the characteristics of an objective, but the others are more goal-like. Let’s examine the good objective.
- Create a unified site experience (specific & realistic) to drive action through clear and compelling value propositions (actionable) that benefit the users and support the business’s needs for recruitment, product sales , and charitable initiatives (realistic).
This objective contains all of the elements we’re looking for, and it ties into the goal of establishing a web experience that places the primary audiences’ needs, preferences, and behaviors at the center of the user experience
The other objectives read as goals:
- Company X must re-establish itself (broad & general) as an innovative place for making widgets (singular) (brief statement).
- Create documents (broad & general) that educate internal stakeholders (singular) about the system being built (brief statement)
These may be valid goals, but in the RFP they are stated as objectives. What you’ve learned in this exercise is that neither statement has the characteristics of an objective. Additionally, neither statement relates to an identified goal. Your next step is to coordinate a call with your prospect to share what you’ve learned and identify the objectives that relate to the goals you’ve noted. If the RFP stipulates no contact with the prospect, it should account for question submission as part of the RFP timeline, which allows you to submit any questions you might have about the project by a given day. Ideally, you should be given at least one opportunity to ask questions. Use the opportunity granted to get clarity.
Understanding a prospective client’s goals, and the steps (objectives) to achieve those goals, enables agencies to craft approaches best suited for realizing the goals. Take the time early in the process to identify goals and objectives and how they relate to one another. If something is unclear, ask questions. When you have what you need, apply your new knowledge to defining the scope and method by which you’ll build this new experience. Submit your proposal and fire up your keynote, you’ve got a pitch coming!