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Do your project goals work? A goal is a target—a destination. And most times the journey to reach your destination will change. It’s not always forward. You might go backwards, you might go sideways, heck you might come off the rails entirely! But if you always keep your eyes on the goal – what you’re trying to achieve – you can recover from almost any set-back, and get to that final destination.
Without a goal, you don’t really know when you’re finished. You’ll probably end up only halfway there and stop, without even realizing it.
Goals for projects are no different. They keep people accountable, they keep people reaching for more, and they are a measure of success.
Goals seem simple. Aren’t they just what the project is going to achieve? Well, yes, but in order to set powerful goals that will actually achieve something, they are a little more complex. Many people have “goals”. But unless that goal is laid out in a very specific manner, and there is an action plan put in place to achieve it, it’s not a goal – it’s nothing more than a dream.
1. Identify what’s important – to the project and to the organization
The first step in setting and achieving project goals is to identity what things in your project are really important to you and the rest of the people involved. Ask those involved if there were three critical things that the project had to deliver, then what would they be? Common examples of critical outcomes are that a) it is delivered on time, b) it’s delivered under budget, and c) it’s delivered to the specifications outlined. Other critical outcomes could refer to specific deliverables or major business benefits.
Asking these questions of everyone involved can help identify the critical outcomes of the project:
- Why are we doing this project?
- What problems are we hoping to solve?
- What deliverables are expected?
- What criteria will be used to measure success?
- Why is it important to the organization?
The last question is not to be overlooked, as you should also make sure you are tying the goals of the project to the overall business strategy and plan. People who understand how their project fits in with the overall business strategy, and therefore the value they will be providing to the business as a whole, have more potential to be motivated to succeed.
2. Set the critical items as the project goals
You can turn those critical items that have to be delivered into goals using the SMART technique. You’ve probably heard of this many times over, but SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.
The goals will differ depending on the project. In some cases, the goal will be easily attainable. Not every project has a crazy goal that requires everyone to work long hours and push themselves to the brink of sanity.
However, if the goal for your project seems pretty easy, why not move the goalposts a little? Think you can easily get that new program launched in 6 months? Why not aim for 5 and try and have a full month of cost-savings. Want to make $100,000 on that campaign? Let’s say $110,000 so that we really have to stretch ourselves. See how any goal can be manipulated to be more of a challenge? Many high achievers work well under pressure and prefer to have higher targets.
That being said, there is a fine line between always keeping a goal attainable, and setting a goal that is so unrealistic that no one even tries to achieve it. “Attainable” is a murky subject – what is attainable to one person might not be to another. Some people would define an attainable goal is one that is almost, but not quite, out of reach. Why? Because if a goal is attainable without much effort, nobody is working to their talent or true potential. If a goal is too easily attainable, there will be no satisfaction derived from achieving it.
“All who have accomplished great things have had a great aim, have fixed their gaze on a goal which was high, one which sometimes seemed impossible.” —Orison Swett Marden
If your goal includes all of the SMART elements, it’s a strong goal. You may choose other goals management techniques but SMART has been around for a long time, and for good reason – it works! Each project should have 3 or less complementary goals. Any more and your team can lose sight of what’s most critical when measuring success.
Achieving your goals
3. Communicate the goals
Your project goals will have more traction if everyone enrolled in the project had some input pre-launch. This could be setting deadlines for their contribution or detailing out actual deliverables. Once everyone is on board with the project goals, determining the ways to achieve them will be much easier.
4. Develop an action plan
Goals are the overall outcome of the project – but you have to have a strategy and tactics of how to get there. By identifying all the tasks, who is responsible for each task, and when the task needs to be completed, it ensures everyone knows exactly what needs to be done in order to achieve the goals. Some tasks will be dependent on others being completed first, and some tasks are higher priority than others (e.g. one delay could lead to a delay in the entire project, or significantly increase costs) and this must be made clear to all involved, including potential repercussions.
5. Meet regularly to keep the project on track.
Goals aren’t something that are set at the beginning of the project and never looked at again. The project manager should be looking at the progress, in relation to the goals, on a daily basis, and the entire project team should be meeting regularly, always checking back in on goal status. As roadblocks come up that make it seem like a goal will be missed, alternative courses of action can be taken. To quote Confucius, “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”
Why some people don’t set goals
There are two main reasons some people don’t set goals:
- They don’t know how: Some people lack the basic understanding of setting goals and don’t realize, or care, how important it is. They would care if they understood.
- They are afraid of failing: When you set yourself a goal, failure then becomes a real possibility. If a goal is never set, failure cannot be properly identified. However, fear of failure is a natural human emotion, especially for high achieving individuals, so it sometimes becomes easier to simply play it safe, and never identify goals.
Setting goals doesn’t cost money, only time, and reaching project goals means success for all involved – project managers, the project team, and the business as a whole. But goals cannot be reached unless they are defined exactly and accompanied by an action plan of how your ultimate goal is going to be achieved, with step-by-step details, clear deadlines and roles and responsibilities. If you do all of this, and fail, don’t be afraid to do it all over again.
Goal-setting is proven as one of the most effective ways to achieve success, so failure is merely part of the learning process.