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Ultimate Guide To Project Objectives & How To Actually Write Them

Without accompanying project objectives, projects aren’t really projects at all—there’s nothing to work towards, no metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs) to shoot for, no way to know whether you’ve accomplished what you set out to do.

I’ve typically seen discussions about SMART project objectives go like this:

Client: I want more leads and better brand recognition.

Me: Those are some great goals!

Also me: Hey Team! We have the goals—now we can put together the project objectives.

My team: *groan* Okay….

Where do you go from there?

In this post, I’ll give you a crash course in all things project objectives:

What Are Project Objectives?

A project objective is a statement that describes the “what” of your project. The tangible and measurable “what”. The “what” that’s achievable, realistic, and can be completed within the time allowed. These statements ladder up to the goals of the project, providing stepping stones to project success.

Keep in mind that project objectives are different from business objectives (and business goals, for that matter). Business objectives are the top-level objectives that set the direction and mission of the business, while project objectives are specific to that individual project, although they are likely to align with the business objectives in some way.

Why Are Project Objectives Important?

An effective project objective can act as a guidepost when making decisions throughout the lifespan of the project. They communicate project purpose in clear, tangible morsels.

Just as with personal goals, having a clear objective for projects is the first step in moving from where we are to where we want to be.

Have you ever set the goal to “be healthier” as a new years’ resolution? How successful were you? This is a much more achievable and measurable goal if we add some details. For example:

  • I will go to the gym (a class, by myself or go for a substantial walk) at least 3 times a week for 4 months straight.

Or

  • I will eat a homemade dinner four out of seven nights a week for 2 months.

It’s important to have well-defined project objectives that each project stakeholder reviews and agrees to. You need these objectives at project initiation and you’ll reference them throughout the project life cycle

This is true for agile, waterfall, scrumfall, wagile, or whatever project methodology combination you’re using. We project managers use them throughout every step of the project as a guidepost to make sure we’re doing right by our project and by our client.

Project objectives can also help CYA (cover your ass) when the client decides to pivot on you (of course, a well-written Statement of Work helps CYA, too).

How Project Objectives Ladder Up Into The Project Plan

Project objectives describe what you’ll achieve with the project, and the project plan describes how you’ll get there. Define your project objectives before creating your project plan, as these objectives will affect things like deliverables and overall project scope, deadlines, who’s on your project team, and even your project management methodology.

For example, consider a new website build with the objective of increasing organic search traffic to the site by 25% a year after the site has been launched. This would require different team members than another website project where the objective is, say, to increase lead generation by 10%. 

For the former, you’d want to plan to have an SEO specialist and a content strategist on board, and for the latter you might lean more towards copywriters and marketing specialists.

Project Goals vs. Project Objectives: Aren’t They The Same Thing?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: while they relate to one another, the goals and objectives serve different purposes. The project goal is usually a high level target set by the business which is the underlying driver behind a project (and how they put the budget towards it). 

The objective is the detailed outline of the big picture of the project. Imagine a connect the dots diagram where the goals are the dots but the objectives are the numbers. The objectives help direct you to the key result of the project or the specific project deliverables.

Here are some goal vs. objective examples:

GoalObjectives
Improved LeadsAn increase of form completions by 5% in the first quarter. Implement validation to improve the quality of the leads captured in the forms decreasing the number of false data by 10% in the first year.
Better UXUsers can get to high profile content in three clicks or less. The website will be inclusive and should meet WCAG2.1AA by completion of the project.

SIDENOTE:

If you’re in a place where you need to set goals before you can set objectives, here are some killer tips for project managers on setting goals.

How To Identify The Right Project Objectives

While having clear project objectives is important, having the right project management objectives is the true key to project success.

If your internal dialogue goes something like this, you’re doing it right:

  • Do I really want to increase page views by 20%? Or is it more valuable to increase quality leads by 5%?
  • Is time on the page important? Or does that mean our users can’t find what they’re looking for?
  • Is it more valuable to make sure key information is always available within a maximum number of clicks? Is it more valuable to increase use of search? Or would that mean our information isn’t easy to find?
  • Are form completes important on a page? Or is it more important to drive users to supporting content?

Notice how, in each example, you’re questioning what you’re measuring. Over the course of many, many, projects I’ve had a lot of goal repetition because of “industry” standards.

Those common benchmarks might not make sense for your project and it’s important to question your knee-jerk decisions and think strategically about the goals you set.

Here is an example showing the questions you can ask to find the right project objectives:

  • Increasing page views by xx%
    • Is that more valuable than an increase in quality leads by 5%?
    • Are page views important if bounce rates are high?
    • Should we be looking to decrease bounce rates instead?

But what if you can’t answer these questions? Well, your team members and clients probably can, or they can provide valuable insight that will help you fill in the holes.

Remember:

Writing project objectives shouldn’t fall solely on the project manager. Defining goals and objectives of the project should start as early as possible, in the project initiation phase or while you are creating the project plan. Ideally, you’ll see some goal definition in the RFP, but you’ll really dive into the definition of objectives in the kickoff. It’s important that you talk these through with the project team and stakeholders to make sure you’re defining the right objectives.

How to Write Project Objectives Using the SMART Framework?

I could hammer out the importance of a project objective until the cows come home (or until the client provides the final copy… haha), but it’s also important you know how to write an objective. This brings us to the SMART project objective concept.

Besides being a super convenient anagram to remember, the SMART approach to writing objectives helps lay the groundwork to make sure you’ve got everything you need clearly laid out.

illustration explaining the SMART acronym and what it means
The SMART framework is extremely useful for writing project objectives.

What Does SMART Mean?

SMART is an acronym that stands for:

  • S = Specific
  • M = Measurable
  • A = Achievable (or attainable, actionable, appropriate)
  • R = Realistic
  • T = Time-bound (or timely, traceable)

And here’s what each part of the SMART acronym means:

Specific

Make sure your objective is clearly defined. Narrow your scope of the objective so that it has a very tangible and specific outcome. This helps you focus your intent. When writing this part of the objective, think of the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of it all.

Measurable

Make sure you can actually quantify the objective. You won’t know when the project objective has been met if it's not measurable. Therefore, make sure the objective is trackable to keep you and the team accountable.

Achievable

Make sure you can accomplish the objective. Identify the clear steps that need to happen to make sure the objective is completed. When writing this portion of the objective ask yourself how you will accomplish it. What steps need to be taken in order to accomplish the specific objective you’ve defined?

Realistic

This one is really important. Don’t set objectives that can’t be achieved within the constraints of the project. Make sure your objective is practical.  Do you have the budget to do this? Is there enough time? Does your team have the right knowledge or do you have time to invest in learning?

Time-Bound

When will this be done by? Having a clear end date or time frame defined helps everybody involved. It lets you know when you need to focus on that objective. It also helps you set a relationship between multiple objectives on a project as well. If you can’t do objective C until A is done and A is getting done in Q1, then you should have C completed in Q2.

Tips For Using The SMART Framework

illustration covering the author's top tips for writing project objectives
My top tips for writing SMART project objectives.

Aside from abiding by the SMART objective approach, you should also follow some other best practices when writing your project objectives.

  1. Use plain, simple language. You’re not trying to assert your dominance of the English language (or whichever language you’re writing your objectives in). It should be quickly scannable and understood.
  2. Use action words when describing the specific SMART goals. You should be doing or achieving something.
  3. Use numbers to quantify your objectives and dates. Don’t be afraid of our friends 123456789 and 0.

Now, if I’m being honest, I have struggled with writing a SMART project objective in the past. I always understood the value but had a hard time actually putting the objectives together. 

Luckily, I have had the opportunity to work with some awesome people and one of them (unfortunately I can’t remember who to name drop here) wrote their project objectives in a table and I have never looked back.

Examples Of SMART Objectives

illustration of an example of a project objective
A good example of a SMART project objective.

Here are a few sample objectives (both project and life related) to get your brain juices going.

By March 2023, our Jr. Designer and Jr. Developer will have used their 4 extra hours per week to launch a website with 5 pages and 1 form, coming to a total of $3,000.

SpecificMeasurableAchievableRealisticTime-bound
I will launch a website for $3,000 dollars.The website will have 5 pages and 1 form.I’ll allocate 100 hours for a Jr. Designer and Jr. Developer at blended rate of $30/hour to stay within budget.Our Jr. Developer and Jr. Designer each have 4 hours per week available to work on the project and have done similar projects for $3,000.By March 2023
I will get a raise at work.I will set clear objectives and measure my progress against them through the year.I will achieve this by staying focused, working hard and proving and documenting my value.I will participate in professional development courses and volunteer for project opportunities that will allow for growth throughout the year.For my next annual review, in one year’s time.

I find the table helpful for organizing my thoughts, but if you do prefer writing out a sentence, don’t feel constrained by the order of S.M.A.R.T.  I like to start my project objective statement with the time-bound element. “By March..” or “in three months time…” It helps frame the statement I’m trying to make, but this is 100% a personal preference.

More Examples Of SMART Project Objectives

I’ve already listed out a few project objectives examples above but I’d like to hammer home the benefit with a few more.

illustration of examples of good and bad objectives
Here's how you might make your objectives SMART-er.
  • Instead of: I want to finish more projects on budget.
    • Try: I will get involved in the estimation process, track budget daily, and communicate budget concerns to my teams in our daily meeting to finish my next 3 projects within a +/- 10% range of the original estimate.
  • Instead of: Improve the site’s user experience.
    • Try: We will reduce the number of clicks it takes for a user to reach the highest traffic page that the majority of our website users regularly visit (the member directory) from any point on the site to 2 clicks or less by the end of our design phase on March 1st.
  • Instead of: More form completes.
    • Try: We will increase the number of qualified leads (as confirmed by Salesforce) by 5% by reducing the required fields in the form by the end of Q2.
  • Instead of: Accessible website.
    • Try: We will build the website to meet WCAG 2.1 AA standards, that will be thoroughly tested against the criteria and is deployed to production by May 2023.
  • Instead of: I want a good review this year
    • Try: By March 2023 I want to increase my annual review score from a 3 to a 4 by completing one course (like the DPM school 👀), reading one book and committing to spend on average 1 hour a week on professional growth.

Onwards And Upwards!

If you write your project objectives well, they’ll help your projects succeed by providing clear, easy-to-understand expectations for your clients, along with concrete objectives that your teams can easily break down into tasks and steps.

It’s also worth using project management software to track objectives against your project plan and any milestones.

About to kick-off a project? Try out the smart table in this article for setting up your objectives, and let me know if that helps!

And finally, how do you write objectives on your projects? Share your insights with the digital PM community by commenting with your project objectives below.

By Mackenzie Dysart

I'm a PMP and CSM certified project manager extraordinaire with over 8 years of experience. I’m a bit of a unicorn as I actually chose to be a PM as a career path. My focus has been on digital projects but I have also worked in print and app development. My experience is on both client and agency side. I work with people who are passionate and help them deliver awesome!

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2 Comments

  • This has been the simplest, most direct SMART writeup I have come across. Thank you

    Reply

  • What a thoughtful, concise and practical article. I especially like the table to compile goals. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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