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Thoughts About Goals and Objectives

    Recently a client and I were discussing the difference between goals and objectives, and as I wrote my response to a question from her I realized that here was a topic for a wider audience. Certainly other people may use the words in other ways, but my perspective is that the objective is closer to vision, and the goal is closer to mission. In other words, just as you work on your mission in order to get closer to your vision, so you set a goal because achieving that goal is a way to achieve the objective.

    When we start out in an endeavor, it is usually because we seek a fairly major objective. We then set a specific goal that we believe will move us toward that objective. However, it is possible that at some point we may become so focused on the goal that we forget about the objective. We may unwittingly find ourselves doing things to achieve the goal that actually work against achieving the objective. The classic example of this is the workaholic executive who maintains s/he is working hard for the benefit of the family when in fact s/he following a schedule that is damaging the family.

    However, the same principle can apply in almost any environment. Say that Sue's goal is to cook a wonderful meal for the family. What is the objective? Is it to make everyone feel comfortably full and satisfied? To show how much she loves her family? Because she loves cooking? Because she wants to see if the recipe will work so as to use it for a party next week? To set up a "you owe me" situation because she is about to ask a favor of someone in the family? To demonstrate that she can cook better than some much admired relative? The meal was the goal. Any of the above, or a combination of them, could be the objective. Let us say, however, that Sue's goal was just to make everyone feel comfortable and satisfied. Suppose that she puts so much effort into the meal that she is exhausted and snappish in her dealings with the family, and ends up making them feel guilty that she has worked so hard. The goal ended up having the opposite effect to the true objective.

    When setting a goal, it is wise to be really sure what your objective is. At work, if your goal is to achieve 2,000 widgets a day, what is it that you want to get to by achieving 2,000 widgets? If it is to earn more money because you are on piece-work, then that, perhaps would be the objective. (A coach might suggest that it is what you seek THROUGH having more money that is the real objective... there can be multiple layers to dig through here.) Or perhaps you are focused on 2,000 widgets because you have never before achieved more than 1,900 widgets and are giving yourself a challenge. Then maybe a feeling of competence is the objective. If the aim is to win a prize offered by corporate managers, then maybe the prize is your objective. Or perhaps the prize is just another goal, and the objective is whatever feeling you may experience when you win the prize. A trip for two to an exotic resort might fulfill the objective of getting out of the cold, or of experiencing a romantic get-away with a life partner.

    As a different example, let's consider as possible scenario an individual who has gone into business as a home-based solo-preneur, determined to work from home, answering to no boss and hiring no help, so that s/he can be available to the family and be free to built a business that will, by its profits, contribute to the well-being of the family.

    It's a wonderful idea.

    Then come the pressures. The individual - let's call this person, Chris - sets up some marketing goals that will bring in enough money to more than cover costs, so that the extra can be put towards vacations, dancing classes for the children, college... whatever is perceived as improving the life of the family - which is the objective. Then comes the realization that marketing is HARD WORK! It takes more time than Chris has realized. Other members of the family have difficulty recognizing that the room that was once a playroom is now an office, and that Chris is not to be disturbed at certain hours. The kids get grouchy and feel abandoned, and Chris is miserable setting boundaries because the whole idea was to be available to the family. Over-night trips become necessary. There are conferences to attend. Motivational tapes sold by sales gurus who have forgotten about family values call on Chris to spend more time selling, more time working, to set ever firmer and higher boundaries. Suddenly, in order to achieve the marketing goals, the well-being of the family goes down the tubes. Yet those goals were originally set solely to enhance the well-being of the family.

    (Naturally, there is a difference if the marketing is needed to put food on the table because Chris is the sole provider - that is a different situation.)

    There are some people who adopt goals that aren't even their own! We know, for example, that many parents are eager for their offspring to go beyond college to graduate school. Why? We hope it is because they believe that this will enable the individual to develop to full potential and to have a better quality of life after achieving the graduate degree. (If, instead, it is so that they can be validated as parents, or can brag about their offspring's achievements, those are different objectives entirely.) Some offspring take on the goal of attaining the degree as their own, but forget that it is simply intended as a means to the end of quality of life and fulfilled potential. The degree can become the be all and end all.

    If something happens to thwart our attempt to reach a goal that has become an end in itself, we may be devastated. We may feel like failures in the major focus of our lives, which can lead to a loss of self-esteem and other negative effects. On the other hand, if we can remember that the goal was simply a way-station en route to the objective, then we can step back and say to ourselves,

    "I can't get there by that route, but this does not mean I can't get there by any route. What else can I do that will achieve the same objective?"

    Getting back to Sue, as an example, if her objective were to demonstrate how much she loves her family, she could equally well have arranged a special event for them, made them gifts, gone out of her way to be extra loving - all aimed at the same objective but having nothing to do with cooking. If her oven were to stop working as she started to cook, if she had her objective clearly in mind, instead of the goal of the meal, she could easily switch to one of these as a Plan B. If she were focused solely on the meal, she would probably become extremely frustrated because she would not be aware of the possibility of a Plan B.

    When we become aware that different goals can attain the same objectives we greatly increase the probability that we will attain that objective. We also become aware that we have choices - always an empowering realization.

    This is one of the reasons why, in my coaching, when a client sets a goal, I often ask questions about the objective. It is not really necessary that I know the objective, but the questions help the client to clarify for him/herself what is the REAL purpose of the goal. What is it that s/he hopes to attain by reaching it? Then, from there, we can ask more questions to discover whether that goal is really the optimal way for that client to achieve that objective. Might there be a better way? An easier way? A way more suited to that particular client, who may have set that goal based on the success of someone else who is a completely different person, with different preferences and abilities.

    As you remember to clarify the objective that accompanies each goal that you set you will find yourself additional empowered and motivated to reach both the goals AND the objective.

    � 2003 by Diana Robinson, Ph.D.
    Choices Success Strategies Coaching
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