People often don't know what they want, have trouble putting what they want into words, or simply want everything they see (after all, everyone was once a 3-year-old at an ice cream shop). To make matters worse, different people want different things. Identifying project objectives and getting everyone to agree on them is hard work. Regrettably, if you try to shortcut this step, your stakeholders will be quick to tell you if they get something they don't want.
Even if its purpose fits in a few short sentences, a project can have all kinds of objectives. The main objective might be to increase market share, but Sales wants the project completed by the end of summer so they can get holiday orders. Project objectives fall into one (or more) of the following categories:
- Business. These objectives relate to business strategies and tactics. Whether your executives fixate on increasing sales or extending product life, business objectives are usually the initial impetus for a project.
- Financial. These are usually distinct from business objectives but closely related. Financial objectives can apply to the entire business or just the project. A project's business objective may be achieving a 10 percent profit margin on sales, while its financial objective might be delivering an 8 percent return on investment.
- Regulatory. Many projects have to conform to regulations, and they all have to obey the law. For example, a project to automate electronic distribution of investment info has to follow SEC guidelines.
- Performance. Schedule and budget quickly come to mind when you think of performance objectives—finishing before a crucial deadline or keeping costs low to earn a performance bonus, for example. Meeting requirements and matching specifications are other types of performance objectives.
- Technical. These objectives may be the type and amount of technology that a solution uses. For example, an emergency broadcast system requires equipment with highly dependable and redundant systems. Or a project may have internal technical requirements like using software that the company already owns.
- Quality. When you talk about decreasing the number of errors or increasing customer survey ratings, you're identifying quality objectives—how good results must be. These objectives also give the project quality plan targets to shoot for.
You also have to prioritize objectives because a project is a balance between scope, time, cost, and quality. You're almost guaranteed to find that you can't achieve all the objectives with the time and budget you're given. By prioritizing objectives, you can figure out the best ones to eliminate—or at least scale back. Suppose you're helping plan your daughter and future son-in-law's wedding. You all set objectives for the flowers, the caterer, and the number of people you'd like to invite. Then, when you come to after seeing the price tag, you may see that orchids on every table aren't as important as inviting your loving relatives. An overabundance of objectives dooms projects to failure. If you can't reduce the number of objectives on your own, work with stakeholders to choose the ones to eliminate.
How can I tell whether objectives will help me successfully complete a project?
Vague objectives are the main source of difficulty obtaining approval when a project plan is complete. You need solid objectives to build a project plan and complete a project to everyone's satisfaction. Here are the characteristics of well-defined objectives:
- Realistic. What's the point of setting an objective that no one can reach? Set attainable goals. Challenging objectives are OK, but people stop trying when goals are too far out of reach.
- Clear. If you've ever worked with someone who does exactly what you say, you know how hard it is to clearly specify what you want. For example, saying you want "an attention-grabbing TV commercial that'll increase market share" could translate into a guy with a loud voice (and plaid jacket to match) selling your product at half the price of your competitors. It'll increase market share…and decimate your profits.
- Measurable or verifiable. Make objectives as measurable or provable as you can. For example, how do you measure whether a training class is effective? When you use subjective goals, be sure to define how you'll know whether you've succeeded. For example, you may decide that an average evaluation score of 8 means the class will improve productivity when the trainees get back to the office.
Learn more about this topic from Microsoft Project 2010: The Missing Manual.
Microsoft Project 2010 helps users control the variables on any project, big or small -- such as schedules, budgets, communications, and changes -- rather than be controlled by them. Written by project management expert Bonnie Biafore, this book teaches you how to do everything from setting, tracking, and adjusting schedules and budgets to testing scenarios and recognizing trouble spots before your project breaks down.