What is the Difference Between Goals & Objectives in Project Management?

Goals and objectives are terms that are often used interchangeably–and wrongly so, especially when it comes to project management.  In fact, according to research, 55% of team members say project objectives are unclear. Another study claims that 37% of respondents feel that a change in project objectives leads to project failure.

Project goals can be thought of as the ultimate 'destination' of the project, whereas project objectives are the project 'road map' that can help project managers reach the end goal or the destination.

Clearly, defining the two and understanding how they differ from each other can allow project managers to kick start the project on the right foot and with the right foundation. In this blog, we will dissect the two concepts and understand the differences and similarities between the two. Let's jump right in.

What are project goals?

Here are a few characteristics of project goals:

  • A project goal basically articulates the "what" of your project and the desired results
  • It typically includes three components: the desired outcome (performance), the specific end date (time frame), and the dedicated assets that will be used (resources).
  • There can be multiple goals within a project.
  • Project goals are broad and more high-level in nature.
  • The goals should neither be too specific nor too vague. 

Example of an incorrect project goal: “Make the chief editor satisfied to get more headcount for the department.” Since it is not possible to measure the CEO's "satisfaction" levels, this goal will become unproductive. 

Example of a correct project goal: "Boost the website blog traffic by 30% within one year to get more headcount for the department." This is a good example of a goal since it is clear, specific, actionable, and time-bound.

The learning: Your project goal should align with the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) format of setting goals to get a clear understanding of what specific tasks should be achieved and within what time frame.

What are project objectives?

  • Project objectives, on the other hand, are more specific.
  • They support the agreed goal and must meet the predefined time frame, budget, and quality restrictions.
  • These comprise smaller tasks that work towards achieving the wider project goal.
  • These may be more short-term in nature.

Example of correct project objectives: Let’s say your project goal is to boost website traffic by 30% within 12 months, as mentioned previously. So your project objectives could include the following:

  • Hire two more freelance writers and graphic designers by the end of Q1
  • Create 20 blog posts every month
  • Create an active Instagram channel within the first month
  • Invite 2 Instagram influencers to blog about the brand within the first two months
  • Optimize 20 posts for search over six months

Note: Project objectives, too, follow the SMART format of goal setting. Meaning that the objectives too are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

The learning: Your project objectives should align with your project goal and should follow the SMART format.

Project Goals vs. Objectives: A Quick Comparison

Now that you have a basic understanding of what project goals and objectives are, let's take a quick look at the differences and similarities between the two for a better understanding:

The Differences Between Defined Goals and Objectives:

Project Goal Project Objective
Refers to what needs to be accomplished and is typically more intangible Refers to how the goal will be accomplished and is more tangible
Signifies the end goal the company is trying to achieve and is more long-term in nature  Signifies the concrete tasks that need to be completed to achieve the end goal and is more short-term in nature 
Includes high-level statements for what the project is trying to achieve Includes lower level statements that describe the specific, tangible deliverables that the project will accomplish
Should align to the overall business goals Should align to the project goals

The Similarities Between Defined Goals and Objectives:

  • They are both key indicators of project progress.
  • They act as the roadmap/blueprint for the project team.
  • Failure to meet the desired outcomes, objectives, and goals can lead to project delays.
  • They both help set the priorities and ensure team alignment.

Key Questions to Ask When Setting the Project Goals & Objectives

Finally, let's look at how you can set the right goals and objectives for successful project outcomes. In addition to following the SMART format, make sure to ask yourself the following questions when drafting the project goals and objectives:

Tip: Ask the right questions to identify the right project goals and objectives, such as:

A. The 'Why' Component:

  • Why are you doing this project?
  • Why is it important to the organization?
  • Why is it important for the team?
  • Why is it important for the individual team members?

B. The 'What' Component:

  • What pain points is the project going to solve?
  • What are the real issues at the center of the project?
  • What are the end deliverables expected from this project by the client and/or senior leadership?
  • What criteria will be used to judge the project's success or failure?

C. The 'Who' Component:

  • Who has a stake in the final outcome?
  • Who will be responsible for driving the project tasks?
  • Who will be the project manager and oversee the overall project progress?

D. The 'How' Component:

  • How do various stakeholders' goals differ?
  • How will you measure the project's success/failure? What key performance indicators and measures will you use?

Closing Thoughts

To achieve success across projects, it is critical that project managers define the project goal and objectives to the t. As long as everyone has a solid understanding of the two terminologies and the role they're going to play in achieving the set goals and objectives, the chances of a successful project will be higher.

In other words, determining the project goals and objectives can lay the right foundation for project success and pave the way for a seamless and smooth project lifecycle. What do you think?