Use project objectives to structure the project and validate success

One technique for writing an objective is to make sure that it is SMART - Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound.

Objectives are the concrete statements that describe the things a project is trying to achieve. A project objective should be written so that it can be evaluated at the conclusion of a project to see whether it was achieved. One technique for writing an objective is to make sure that it is SMART - Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. (Note that an objective does not have to use the SMART technique to still be valid.)

An example of an objective statement might be to "upgrade the helpdesk telephone system by December 31 to achieve average client wait times of no more than two minutes".

  • The objective seems fairly specific in its statement about upgrading the phone system.
  • The objective is measurable in terms of the average client wait times the new phone system is trying to achieve.
  • You can assume that the objective is achievable and realistic by this project team.
  • The objective is time-bound and should be completed by December 31.
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Objectives are deliverable based

Objectives should make reference to the deliverables of the project. In the example above, the objective refers to the upgrade of the telephone system. If you can't get a sense for the deliverables that are needed to fulfill the objective, the objective may be written at too high a level. On the other hand, if an objective describes the characteristics of the deliverables, it's probably written at too low a level. If the statements describe the features and functions, for instance, they are requirements, not objectives.

Why objectives are important

Objectives are important for three major reasons.

  1. They are in business terms. Once they are approved, they represent an agreement between the project manager and the project sponsor (and other major stakeholders) on the main purpose of the project. The specific deliverables of an IT project, for instance, may or may not make sense to the project sponsor. However, the objectives should be written in a way that they are understandable by all of the project stakeholders.
  2. They help frame the project. If you know the project objectives, you can determine the deliverables needed to achieve the objectives. This in turn helps nail down the overall project scope, helps you identify risks and allows you to provide estimates on effort, duration and cost. Once the project starts, you can validate that all of the work that you are performing will ultimately help you achieve one or more project objectives.
  3. They help you declare success. At the end of the project, you should be able to talk to your sponsor to determine whether everything expected in the project objectives has, in fact, been achieved. If all of the objectives were not fully met, you may still be able to declare partial success.

The project objectives should be defined and agreed upon before the project starts. The deliverables of the project are created based on the objectives - not the other way around. That is, you don't agree on the deliverables first and then establish objectives to match. You must understand the objectives of a project and then determine the deliverables that are needed to achieve them. You would then structure the entire project to meet the project objectives.