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

In everyday language, you might use the words “goal” and “objective” interchangeably. In project management, however, there is a distinct difference between the two. Setting goals and objectives early on in the project lifecycle can help motivate, establish key indicators of progress, and act as a “road map” for a project team.

Failure to establish goals and objectives early on can derail any project. In fact, “undefined project goals” and a “change in objectives” have been identified as two common reasons for project failure.

But when it comes to setting project goals and establishing project objectives, what are the key differentiators you need to know, and how can you use them together for project success?

What are project goals?

A goal in project management articulates the desired outcome. Of course, a project can have multiple goals it seeks to achieve. Project goals are high-level and broad, often requiring a long-lens view. This is because they are the “what” of your project. Not the “how.”

Though your goal should not be too specific, a goal should not be overly vague, either. A statement like “make the CEO happy so we can get more funding for our department” would not be a useful goal to set for a number of reasons — the main one being that the standard for CEO “happiness” is hard to measure and does not serve a wider business goal.

Examples of good project goals:

  • Increase website blog traffic by 20% year over year
  • Reach 100,000 subscribers on the company YouTube channel in six months
  • Produce 10 customer case studies by Q3

Why are these examples of good project goals? They provide a clear understanding of what needs to be accomplished and by when. They’re also in line with the SMART format of goal-setting (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound).

What are project objectives?

While goals are broad and longer-lens, project objectives are specific and consist of smaller tasks that work to serve the wider goal. Goals are important, but the objectives are the gas that powers the engine.

Let’s take the “increase website blog traffic by 20% year on year” goal example in the last section. Objectives for this 12-month goal may look like this:

  • Hire three more freelance writers by the end of Q1
  • Produce 15 blog posts a month, every month
  • Establish a weekly email newsletter by the end of Q2
  • Partner with two guest bloggers per quarter
  • Perform an SEO audit and optimize 30 posts for search over six months

Though these objectives may seem small compared to the wider goal, these are the OKRs (objectives and key results) to help achieve this goal. These also follow the SMART method in that they’re all specific, measurable, achievable, relevant to the wider goal, and time-bound.

What is the difference between project goals and objectives, and how do they both ensure project success?

Project goals and objectives may not be the same thing, but they answer the two most important questions in project management: What needs to be done and how will we do it?

  • A project goal is what needs to be accomplished
  • Project objectives envision how the goal will be accomplished

Only 64% of projects meet their goals. This means 36% have an idea of what they want to achieve but cannot properly execute objectives that help them meet these goals. This is why creating SMART goals and objectives is essential for project success.

When used together, goals and objectives help set priorities, measure progress, and ensure team alignment.