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Goals vs. Objectives: a Real Difference

“The goal is where we want to be. The objectives are the steps needed to get there”
—Peter Drucker

INTRODUCTION

It happened again last week. I was meeting with a new client and her staff. It was our second meeting, and we were discussing their new marketing plan—my primary task. The discussion was coming along nicely, when, predictably, it happened. It always happens! Mr. X [MBA NYU] and Ms. Y [MBA Florida] got into a heated argument about the most appropriate goals [term used by both] for their marketing plan. Mr. X pushed for increased sales, while Ms. Y insisted that, “customer retention needs to increase by 10%.” Grace, the President, thought that both objectives [her word] were on target. No big deal, right?
For me, it is, and I contend it should be important to you. I have to admit that I have a bias about these sorts of things. After 41 years teaching marketing, I feel a personal obligation to make sure that the use of certain business terms are used correctly.
I should acknowledge that I recognize that industries often use different terminology than academics. Still, one social benefit of academics like me is to study concepts and provide standard understandings.
I also understand that, in general, most business managers are not big on definitions unless they can see a clear benefit. Typically, they are accepting of the jargon used in a particular sector of business. I posit that the distinction between goals and objectives is real and important. It is not just semantics.
I wish to address three areas: [1]order, [2] differences, and
[3] benefits.
In respect to order, goals always come before objectives. The business plan delineates the business goals, followed by the business objectives. Goals are the bases for the objectives. Many companies have essentially the same overarching goals, i.e., increase sales, increase profits, decrease operating costs, and reduce churn. Objectives are specific.
This sequence follows through into the various business functions as well. Accounting has a set of goals followed by specific objectives. This is true for marketing, finance, human resources, manufacturing, and so forth. For example, a good starting point would be to provide the marketing function with the goal of sales. Without the integral intermediary step translating that type of goal into concise and actionable marketing objectives that align the product attributes, brand assets, and user needs, success is limited.

The differences are real as well.
Goals are:
• Broad and generic
• Intangible
• Cannot be measured
• Long term
• Based on ideas
• Example: Decrease costs in order to enter new markets.
Objectives are:
• Narrow and specific action plan
• Tangible
• Can be measured
• Short term
• Based on facts

FOR EXAMPLE

Decrease operating costs in our Eastern European plants by 30% by January, xxxx.
So, what are the benefits ? The primary benefit of understanding the differences between goals and objectives is that it makes a company more strategic. Instead of various company managers using various versions of goals/ partial goals and objectives/ partial objectives, the process will be standardized and implemented the same by all. Essentially, the specificity of objectives will identify the optimum set of strategies, which, in turn, will implement the most effective/efficient tactics. Optimum strategies and effective tactics are two additional benefits.
I end this blog with a bit of academic thinking. When creating cogent objectives, four elements should be considered. First, an objective should identify the subject , e.g., customer, country, department, competitor. Second, what action needs to be taken? Third, how should that action take place? Fourth, what is the time line? Let me give you a marketing objective for the company I mentioned earlier: Increase Internet sales tJanuary 1, 2013.
I hope you will take the ideas expressed here seriously. Using correct terms does matter.

John Burnett

Dr. John Burnett is the President of John Burnett Marketing, expert witness, consultant, and author. He can be reached at, jburnettdba@me.com. If you are interested in learning more about legal marketing planning you might check Dr. Burnett’s e-book, “How to Avoid Random Acts of Marketing: A Plan for Small to Midsized Law Firms.”

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Filed Under: Personal Development

About the Author: Dr. John Burnett is the President of John Burnett Marketing, expert witness, consultant, and author. He can be reached at, jburnettdba@me.com. If you are interested in learning more about legal marketing planning you might check Dr. Burnett’s e-book, “How to Avoid Random Acts of Marketing: A Plan for Small to Midsized Law Firms.”

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