On the accuracy and liability of project objectives

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said: The aimless suffers his fate – the systematic designs it. Certainly Kant had not thought about the challenges of modern project management when he formulated this sentence, yet he describes an important challenge for the project manager: to clarify and define the project’s objectives.

Whether a project is successful or not largely depends on the defined project objectives. Defining the objectives, specifies not only the clear but also the unconscious expectations placed on the project. Here, the conditions are set, within which the project manager and the team can act. Usually it is differed between objectives of approach (description of the “how” like with costs or deadlines) and results (description of the “what” like with the deliverable). The objectives of result thereby also generate objectives of benefit (description of the “benefit” for the consumers of the project results). In the initialization phase, the foundation is laid where all further steps take place. Until the project order then sets the objective, lots of discussions, arguing, planning, rejecting, and – not to forget – communication happens. Experience tells that “80{900eb057d04bc15b2903c34581688569cf9699c728ba515742c0c5dc385e9b0b} of the project’s success lies in the communication”. All involved in the project need to understand the objectives in terms of deliverables, deadlines, costs and quality standards to work precisely in the project. What’s more, all project team members need to support these objectives.

The dates and costs are monitored continuously; an early and (depending on the course of the project) corrective action of the project manager that is sometimes necessary here takes much more often place than with performance and quality. Here, not so often checks and adjustments take place in the course of the project – possibly out of fear that this could challenge the project or parts of it.

If the results should meet the expectations of the customer at the end of the project, all the objectives and also “non”-objectives need to be formulated in detail at the beginning of the project. For this purpose, the following questions need answers: What exactly is part of the scope and what is not? What are the clear and what are the hidden expectations of the customer? And what results must be in what quality?

Often, aspects to these questions are dismissed as “quite clear” and the real request is not described in detail. For example, as a delivery item of a project a software documentation can be a compressed two-page description, or a fifty-page user manual. It can address the administrators or users. It can be available as a book (paper), pdf (electronically) or as an online help (help functionality of the software). This destination details must also be clarified in advance.

What are the obstacles and how to avoid them?

  • Results-oriented objectives (i.e., performance and quality objectives) are often not as comprehensive and carefully planned and tracked as would be necessary, in contrast to objectives of deadlines and costs
  • Objectives are defined not measurable and can be interpreted in different ways
  • Objectives are not taken seriously, e.g., because they are judged as “anyway unreachable” by the project team
  • Breaking objectives into sub-objectives that are easy to manage and do this according to the SMART rules, does not follow the fate, but takes it in the own hands:

Objectives must be clearly defined. Not vague, but as precise as possible.
Objectives must be measurable. Criteria for measurability must be defined and applied.
Objectives must be accepted by the team members.
The implementation of the objectives must be feasible.
Each objective needs a clear deadline, until which it must be reached.


  • The project manager as the contractor establishes together with the customer the basis for project quality t an early stage of the project defining precisely the objectives and deliverables. This is a prerequisite for further planning steps.
  • A continuous review of the objectives during the project allows the balance between the customer (internal or external), project manager and team. Every stakeholder is involved.
  • A precise definition of objectives and continuous reviews during the project help avoiding surprises.
  • Objectives, defined in the SMART-style, also ensure measurability and comparability of projects. This is a prerequisite for continuous improvement in project work.
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