#180 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 10          October 1995

How to Make Objectives More Effective
by Peter Meyer

Mr. Meyer, principal of the Meyer Group in Scotts Valley, California, speaks and writes on management issues, such as obtaining better results from fewer resources.  He can be reached at (408) 439-9607. www.MeyerGrp.com

As a manager, you understand your own objectives; but how do you define objectives for your staff to maximize their effectiveness?  After fifteen years of pain and triumph in learning about productivity and how objectives are defined, I recommend two tools that have proven to be useful to managers:  1) an early objectives test and 2) an importance test.  If those who report to you use these easy-to-remember tests, your own effectiveness is sure to increase.

Ideally, you want the employee to attain the objective without relying on you at every step.  You also want the employee to feel ownership of the objective.

An objective should have the characteristics outlined in the box below:


Tests for a Good ObjectiveóA Memory Tool

It must be Specific,

It must be Measurable,

It must be Attainable,

There need to be enough Resources,

It must be Timed, and

It must be IMPORTANT


Objectives must be SMART and IMPORTANT to create results.

Using the Tests

To explain how the tests work, here are some examples of good and not so good objectives.

ē  ďQuality is job one.Ē  It feels good, but isnít a very good objective.  Itís not specific.  Itís surely not measurable, and itís not clear whether itís attainable.  Resources are totally undefined, and it isnít timed.  In other words, since thereís no time limit on the objective, it will never be done.

ē  Occasionally, I find a manager who gives out objectives along the lines of:  ďDo whatever it takes to make this happen!Ē  Thatís a problem for the employee.  He or she canít know whether the manager really means it.  Since there are going to be boundaries (can the employee murder to achieve targets?), this statement isnít specific enough.  Will the resources be unlimited?  It defies measurement.  Itís certainly hard to attain if you havenít got a definition of the problem.  How will you know when youíve achieved ďthisĒ?  Itís not timed at all.  We canít tell if itís important, without going back to management, and that makes it harder for the employee to feel ownership of the objective.

ē  We might ask an employee to:  ďIncrease thermal output by 62 percent without increasing costs.Ē  Itís certainly possible to say that itís specific and measurable.  The questions about attainable and resources are dependent on time.  If increasing output by 62 percent is a one-week objective, youíll need a different list of resources, and even then it may not be attainable.  If itís a five-year objective, you may need fewer resources to make it attainable.  The objective would pass the tests and be improved with a time limit.

ē  ďBring the new system up to specs by the end of the month.Ē  Thatís specific, measurable, certainly attainable.  The resources can be defined and quickly determined to be available or not.  Thereís a time limit, and it seems important.

Of these examples, the last passes all tests, except possibly for importance.  One of the hardest tasks is knowing how to tell if something really is important.

How Do You Know Whatís ďImportantĒ?

Importance is defined by a specific tool:  success criteria.  In other words, you canít really know whether somethingís important unless you know that it meets specific success criteria.  We have developed two questions that will help you explain the criteria:

1.  How will whatever it is look like when youíre done?

2.  When youíre done, what will you have that you didnít have before?

The answer to the second question is really what you want.  If you donít know, then you have no way of telling yourself, your employees, or your colleagues whatís important.  If success doesnít make more things possible than before, or tasks easier than they were before, then why are you spending precious resources on it?  Waste hurts more than budgets.

For example, at IBM, I worked under Jim for two years.  When he came in and took over the division, he decided that he needed to move very aggressively in little time.  Jim hit like a whirlwind.  In the first few weeks, people were busy, working extra hours, and feeling very proud.  This pride came from the sense of activity and from the fact they were working with somebody who was exciting and focused.  At the end of a month, people started bringing results back to Jim.  Then morale sank.

As work came back, Jim rejected it as off-target or incomplete.  He repeatedly sent the staff back for rework.  People walked into his office very excited and charged.  They walked out tired and confused.

Five months into Jimís tenure, attitudes suddenly started to transform.  Energy levels increased.  Jim was sending work back less and less.  Without any visible reason, productivity went up, enthusiasm went way up, and Jim was getting the results he wanted almost every time.  He was pleased.  He couldnít explain it, and didnít mind that he couldnít.  He just assumed that it was because of his masterful performance as a manager.

What actually happened was something else.  It started in an interview published in the fifth month.  He was asked what the strategy was for the upcoming year.  When he answered, it was the first time heíd told anyone what he hoped to have changed at the end of his first year.

When we read this, we finally knew what our success criteria would be.  With this, we brought the right answers to Jim.  Frustration was down.  We were all much happier.

Knowing what was important helped us avoid working on the wrong stuff, and that reduced the time it took to get things done.  Less waste of time and other resources increased morale substantially.  The division went on to put out an enormous amount of high-quality material in a very short period.

What Time-Frame Should You Use?

Whatís a good time period to measure?  A year-long objective isnít productive.  My wife taught me this.  If she asks me to clean out the garage within a year, I wonít be focusing on it right away.  How could I ask others for more than Iím willing to do?

The best success comes when you measure objectives over short periods.  When you set the objective, set it to be reviewed in a specific time.  For most of us, six weeks is more than long enough to get into trouble and forget our priorities.  Measuring and rewarding success each six weeks has the wonderful effect of reinforcing your values with little effort on your part.

Part of the responsibility of a good manager is to help people get rewards.  The flip side is that you have the responsibility to immediately let them see when they miss your success criteria.  If you set short and clear time objectives, you transfer ownership to the employee.  You can reward success because itís measured.

Shouldnít you be defining objectives in a way that maximizes your staffís effectiveness and, simultaneously, decreases the time you spend on managing people?  The SMART and IMPORTANT tools and success criteria can do precisely that.

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