Setting Objectives


This post is part of a series on IT consulting.

An operations manager at an insurance company once told me that his computer system was ancient, at full capacity, and that the incumbent systems integrator was charging a fortune just to add a new field to a form. He wanted me to replace the system with something new. He had funding, the CEO supported it, and everyone was set to start.

On the face of it this reads like a recipe for success, but is it really? Let's dig a little deeper:

  • What's the real problem here? High operational cost? Stability? Capacity? Finding support staff skilled in an obsolete technology?
  • Must the system be replaced at all? What about replacing the incumbent systems integrator instead?
  • Whichever route is taken, how will the ops manager know that he was successful? How would I know that I was successful?

An objective is a description of something that somebody wants to achieve. A good first step is understanding who it is that wants to achive it. After that try to determine what needs to be achieved and, just as importantly, why and by when.

The Client

Before setting an objective, you need to be clear about who the client is. You can identify the client by asking the following questions:

  • Whom do you need to satisfy?
  • Who will judge the success of the project?
  • Who will fail if the project fails?
  • Who has authority for the project?
  • Who pays for the project?
  • Whom do you report to?
  • The Objective

    A good objective is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-boxed (SMART.). When an objective is SMART, all stakeholders will know when the objective has been achieved. When the objective isn’t SMART, it is unclear whether you’ve achieved what you set out to do, so success will be ambiguous. Setting a SMART objective has the following benefits:

  • Focus attention on goal-relevant activities
  • Informs stakeholders of what “finished” looks like
  • Removes ambiguity
  • Examples

    Bad examples of objectives include:

  • We want to replace our back-end system.
  • We want to move to free and open source software.
  • Improve project management reporting during the next year.
  • Good examples include:

  • Activate 50% more cellular phones on our network within a year.
  • Reduce call wait time by 25% in eight weeks.
  • In closing, note that while setting specific, challenging goals can powerfully drive behavior and boost performance, goals that are too narrow and neglect non-goal areas can cause systematic harm. This can result in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced motivation. Rather than dispensing goal setting as a ready for motivation, setting objectives should be done in consideration of harmful effects, and be subject to review.

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