It’s unlikely you’d begin a road trip without first identifying where you want to go, mapping out your route, and making a budget. The same logic applies when you're planning a project.

A lack of direction and unclear goals are among the largest reasons why projects fail. In its annual report, PMI Pulse of the Professional found an estimated 37% of projects businesses undertake fail due to unclear project objectives and milestones. Businesses who fail to plan for projects don’t just waste employee efforts and time—they also waste money. Approximately 10% of every dollar a business spends is wasted as a result of poor project management efforts. 

If you work in an environment where company targets and goals are in constant flux, drawing clear lines for a project can feel daunting—and at times, futile. But in workplaces where change and chaos are an accepted part of doing business, it’s more important than ever to draw lines in the sand around what a project is—and what it isn’t. Creating ground in an ocean of change doesn’t just stabilize you and your team—it can radically increase your odds of successfully completing a project. 

So how does one get started? Here are some guidelines to effectively defining and communicating objectives with your team:

Understand the difference between goals and objectives

Although "goals" and "objectives" can be used interchangeably, it's important to point out some key differences.

According to a Forbes article, a goal is a broad primary outcome, or the "destination." An objective, on the other hand, is a measurable step you take to achieve a strategy. Think of objectives as the project's "road map" with specific tasks that need to be completed to reach the goal.

Objectives are imperative to project success, especially in companies with shifting priorities. Here are two key reasons why:

    1. They de-stress your team and increase productivity: one of the primary reasons people procrastinate on a project is because they see the forest instead of the trees. Instead of seeing what single step they have to take next, they see all the steps they have to take in one glance—and the thought of that can be overwhelming and debilitating.

      Clear objectives don’t just break projects down into actionable chunks; they give your team a greater sense of control and clarity over their work. Instead of being overwhelmed by the number of steps it takes to reach the end, they just need to focus on the step in front of them.
    2. Objectives, especially when grouped together in project phases, allow for natural review periods. When one phase is finished, you can review a project to make sure it’s still aligned with initial project goals, within scope, on budget, etc. This is also a great time to reassess a project and make adjustments if company priorities do shift and the project does in fact need to change.

      It’s much easier to change a project—and keep control over the change—if there are many built-in phases to review and adjust before the project gets too far along. Otherwise your project may succumb to the sunk cost fallacy. 


Ask the right questions

Now that you know you need to have both goals and objectives to successfully complete a project, it’s time to learn how to identify them. You can do this by asking yourself some key questions:

  • Why? Why are we considering this project? Why is this project important to the organization?
  • What? What problems is the project expected to solve? What are the real issues at the core of the project? What deliverables do stakeholders expect from this project?
  • Who? Who will be involved in this project? Who has a stake in the outcome?
  • How? How do various stakeholders goals differ? How are we going to measure success? How are these business objectives aligned to our organization’s overall business strategy?

Try to get ahead of assumptions or miscommunication

Remove assumptions about a project by communicating objectives early on. If you want a project to succeed, you need to make sure ideas of “success” are aligned between management, the team, and stakeholders early on. These conversations can be difficult, but if they’re not tackled early on, they’ll cause trouble later. You and your team will likely feel less receptive to outside feedback if you get it after the work’s been done rather than before. 

When it comes to miscommunication, the easiest-to-implement solution is to make sure team members are in project-related meetings whenever possible (even if it’s just to listen), as well as have uninterrupted access to the information from meetings they don’t attend. For example, if you have a conversation with your company’s executives about a project’s goals, making the conversation, either via notes or recording, accessible later to your team allows them to understand the various goals, concerns, and objects of the company. They’ll have better context for their work—which will not just empower them, but also allow them to make more strategic decisions when circumstances change. 

Map out a chain of communication

Create a communication system that team members can use to update stakeholders and management on where a project is heading and when changes are made. Avoid surprises by developing a system that creates accountability at every step of the project.

Establishing rules for project collaboration and discussion doesn’t just help improve communication and set expectations for everyone on the team, it also helps establish data management and collaboration habits that reduce future opportunities for conflict and confusion. Everyone knows what’s expected of them on any given project or process. 

Some ways to start this process are by:

    1. Identifying what tools will be used for data management and collaboration. Where do you want your data to live? What platforms can they use and who has access to them? It’s imperative to make sure you know where all your information on a project exists, and who has control over it or access to it. 
    2. Choosing what channels your team communicate on and where specific types of conversation/discussions live. Does feedback on an Excel doc get delivered via email or Slack? Can it be sent privately or should certain members of the team always be included in these updates, even if they aren’t responsible for taking action on them? Conversations about the project offer context that can be just as important as the data itself, so creating intentional spaces for discussion is a key step.

Establish clear deadlines and roles for project members

A Gallup report found only 33% of people know what is expected of them from their jobs. This lack of clarity is a major contributor to project struggles and failure. How can teams be expected to finish tasks if they aren’t sure the work is theirs?

The way to counter this is by creating clear objectives, along with who they’re assigned to, the scope of the work, and a deadline, in a place where all members of the team can see and agree to it. A task assignment doesn’t mean much if there’s no one else on the project who knows about it. 

Final Thoughts

It’s tempting to dive into a project the second it’s your responsibility, especially if your company is fast-paced, demanding, and needs results NOW. But skipping over the outlining phase of project management only yields frustration and a higher chance of failure.

Take a breath and take time to establish project objectives and goals so you and your team feel a greater sense of control over your project—and have a greater chance at success. 

To learn more about project management and how you can improve your likelihood of success, download our free eBook, Why Projects Fail & How To Fix Them.

This book covers topics including:

  1. Weak communication
  2. Issues of accountability
  3. Poor progress tracking


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