Dan Pupius

Good objective, bad objective

How to set goals that build alignment and accountability

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Writing a good objective is hard. It requires capturing a huge amount of knowledge and context into a short phrase. Getting it wrong causes confusion, at best. At worst it can lead to projects going off track, unnecessary work, and important things being dropped.

Whether you are using OKRs, Headlining, or Agile Epics, a well-written objective communicates what your team is doing and why, builds alignment within and across teams, empowers autonomy, and builds accountability.

Here are some tips on writing objectives.

What and why, not how

A good objective communicates at a high-level what you are doing and why. It makes it clear to an appropriately knowledgeable person why certain actions are being performed, and why others are not.

But it is not overly prescriptive. Bad objectives read more like a to-do or a task. They lose track of the underlying reason for the objective. If the world changes or new information emerges, the final solution/approach may need to change. In particularly bad cases, it may be possible to complete the objective without actually accomplishing the original intent.

Bad: Ship a new version of the blog template

Good: Our blog is accessible for disabled readers and scores 100 on Lighthouse audits

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One of the hardest things about writing an objective is getting the size right. Too small and it won’t capture all the things that really need to happen. Too big and it won’t be useful at helping you make trade-offs.

When writing an objective think about how it will guide your actions. Does it provide enough focus to narrow the scope of what you might do? Or are there things that you want to do that aren’t captured? Perhaps it should really be two objectives.

Bad: Ensure success at enterprise customers

Good: Triple number of active teams per enterprise account

Are we there yet?

A good objective describes a desired outcome or state that needs to be reached. A bad objective leaves you uncertain about whether you actually accomplished the intended goal. When you’re in a crunch, and things are hard, it’s understandable that you’ll choose the most favorable interpretation of an objective. So make sure to be specific. Hold your future self-accountable.

Bad: Increase sales leads

Good: Demos per week consistently exceeds five per rep

Who says?

Relatedly, a good objective is objective, i.e. it isn’t subjective, where success is open to interpretation. A reasonable person should be able to judge whether an objective has been completed or not, either through observation or measurement.

Bad: Frontend services are stable

Good: Externally measured uptime exceeds 99.99%

Cart before the horse

It’s obvious that the objectives that guide the operation of a working factory should be very different from those while it is being built. However, in knowledge work, things aren’t always so simple.

We’re often building systems and processes at the same time as solving a problem. So watch out for situations where you simply aren’t ready for an objective that would otherwise be reasonable.

Bad: Hire six new engineers a quarter

Good: All engineers have been trained on new hiring rubric and process

Objective writing is an art, not a science. I hope these guidelines are helpful.

The main thing to keep in mind is that you are communicating to multiple audiences: your team, your manager, your company, and your future self.

Think about what you want to accomplish, then put yourself in their shoes and imagine how they might misinterpret what you’ve written. Remember, these aren’t written in stone. As you are presenting and discussing your plans, sense and react, take time to refine and clarify your objectives.

Of course, running a good goal-setting process is more than just writing the description. Range makes it easy to see the status of team objectives and helps you track all the work that contributes to your goal. And if your teams are struggling to identify and track good objectives, our friends at Epic Teams have a great coaching program that is worth checking out.

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