Why set objectives at all?
Although all employees have a job description which lays out in general terms the scope of their role, this does not, for most people, say enough about the specific tasks they work on over a given period.
What is important is the link back to School / Department / Research Institute plans and objectives, and how personal objectives align to them. What this means in practice is that personal objectives should be set based on the needs of the wider organisation, and hence reference and discussion about School / Department / Research Institute plans, and how they impact you, is essential.
For this to happen you need to be familiar with the plans, at least in so far as they relate to your area of work. Without this it is very hard to gain a clear understanding of the wider context in which your work takes place (which in turn may limit how engaged you are with the work you do).
For some people (particularly where they are project-based) objectives often reflect different tasks each year; for others (with more routine duties) they may reflect very similar tasks year-on-year. However even in the latter situation it is nearly always the case that some degree of change or improvement (e.g. reassignment of tasks, looking for better ways to do things, introducing a new procedure) is being implemented. Objectives need to reflect such expectations.
So generally it is sensible to have as objectives the priority areas of your work. This is likely to include a mix of new tasks and ongoing tasks – but the main thing is to make sure the objectives set reflect the most important things you are being asked to do.
However objectives do not cover everything – there will always be a percentage of time spend doing things that were not planned or could not be planned – things change and a degree of flexibility and common sense needs to be used.
What is particularly important is that employees are not asked to create their own objectives in isolation. Asking people to come up with things they would like to be involved in or work on is OK as a starter to gain a sense of involvement and collective understanding of the totality of tasks, but it has little value beyond this. What people work on has to be guided by and aligned to the priority areas identified within School or Department plans. Personal choice can of course play some part in this (we need to play to people’s strengths, utilise the skills available, and develop new skills) but only within the context of the framework set by the higher level plan.
Exactly how objectives are set will vary from person to person – but one of the most effective approaches is for the line manager to set an overall expectation by outlining the targets / priority areas of work and then either to discuss draft objectives together or ask the reviewee to develop draft objectives that align to the priorities. These can then be further reviewed and modified prior to agreement.
Either way, objectives should always be agreed between reviewee and reviewer, particularly with regard to expected outcomes.
Measurement of outcomes
When setting objectives it is important to make sure that:
1) Enough definition is included to be able to fully understand the nature and scope of the objective
2) It is possible to understand clearly what a successful outcome looks like, usually by defining the standard to be achieved
To do this each objective needs to be realistic, relevant and clearly define what the person is required to do. A timescale for completion should always be included.
The “SMART” approach is a good starting point – a good objective should be:
S – Specific, i.e. keep to the point, be clear about what is needed
M - Measurable, i.e. include enough definition on quality or quantity
A – Attainable, i.e. realistically achieved in the time available
R – Relevant, i.e. aligned with team needs, School plans, etc
T – Time-bound, i.e. clarity about how long it should take to complete
However even when this is done, you should check objectives against the following criteria:
1) Are my objectives aligned fully with School / Dep’t / RI objectives?
2) Have I captured all the higher priority tasks?
3) Have I limited the list to no more than about 4-8 objectives?
4) Is there a clearly defined outcome from each objective?
5) Is it possible to tell when the task has been successfully completed?
Although this checklist should help to develop better objectives, there is a significant remaining issue – will the objectives actually get done:
- Has there been enough discussion and planning put into how the
task will be achieved?
- Does the person responsible have the necessary skills?
- Is the person responsible committed and motivated to achieve the task?
- Does the person responsible have the time to achieve the task?
If you struggling to identify objectives, then try answering the following questions:
1) What is your team responsible for? What are the primary outcomes (maximum of 3-5) of the team?
2) Within the latest School / Department / Research Institute plan what are the highest priority objectives or actions identified?
3) How do the priority objectives impact on your role? What does this tell you about things that you may have to do to make the objectives / actions happen?
4) Write a simple statement for each main area you have identified in 3) above, including specifically:
a. Stating the task
b. A time-scale
c. A measure of success (how will anyone know it's completed)
5) Are you in a position to commit to the objectives outlined by this process?
Although this simple process won’t work in all cases, it does require background information that should help identify tasks that you can impact – even if this is in some cases a routine, ongoing task.
Examples of objectives
"Participate in relevant Competence Development Groups"
This states what is expected, but gives no information about the standard involved – someone could participate yet input nothing of value. This is not an effective objective.
This is also a poor objective – not only does it have no effective standard or time-scale, it isn’t even clear what it means.
"Coordinate and actively develop and maintain other university research contacts"
This objective is specific and clear, but lacks a time-scale and any sense of a meaningful outcome.
"Anticipate and meet the requirements of internal customers by establishing a monthly meeting and at least 2 forums to share team capabilities by end Q2"
This objective is pretty good – it has most of the right attributes and the expected outcome is clear.
"Develop and implement a career development plan for each staff member"
This objective is certainly specific and there is a clear outcome; however there is no time-scale and not enough definition as to what standard is to be applied.
"Develop a new distance learning module on Knowledge Management, meeting all the agreed learning outcomes, and upload it ready for use at the start of the 2010-11 academic year"
This objective meets all the requirements (assuming that it is a priority development area within the given School!)