In business, objectives, goals and strategies are often used interchangeably when describing a company’s direction. Yet they are very different. Which one comes first – and does it really matter?
When developing a business strategy, first decide your objective, i.e. where you are going. Translate your objective into measurable goals that define success. Then develop your strategies which determine how you are going to achieve your objective and reach your goals.
Or said differently, if business strategy was a road trip, then your objective would be your destination and your strategies your means to reach it. Unless you are a happy-go-lucky vacationeer for whom the journey is the destination, you decide on your destination first and then determine how to get there. Let’s explore further why this order is important.
Begin with the end in mind
One of the books that has been most influential in my career is The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. One specific quote left a particular impression on me which I have since applied to almost every endeavor in my business life including strategy: begin with the end in mind.
“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”Stephen Covey
It is this quote that convinced me that strategy must begin with the destination. What do I aim to achieve? What dream or vision do I have for my business? Where do I want to be in e.g. five years? Painting this vision in as concrete terms as possible makes it tangible – not only for myself but also for my team. And a concrete, tangible vision inspires action. Turning the description of my destination into an objective statement and clearly defined goals make them tangible.
What is a strategic objective?
The objective is a qualitative statement about what a business aims to achieve over a specified timeframe. The chosen timeframe of a strategic plan is typically 3-5 years and for an annual operating plan 1 year.
The goals are the quantifiable targets or intended results to be accomplished. These typically are financial figures or other measurable metrics. In strategy, goals are the quantification of the objective to judge its achievement over the chosen timeframe.
It is best to describe the goals as SMART goals. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Thereby each goal is clear and unambiguous.
Once I have defined my destination, then I can decide how I will get there. As Stephen said, only then do I know that “the steps [I] take are always in the right direction.” And these steps are my strategies.
What is the difference between goals and strategies?
Strategies are the plan of action to achieve a long-term vision or objective. Strategies describe the choices a business makes about resource allocation to accomplish its objective and goals.
When designing my strategic plans, I aim to choose 3-5 strategies to give the business sufficient focus without putting all my eggs in one basket. Once I have made those choices, I develop an implementation plan that turns the strategies into action. This ensures that I move my business towards the destination.
So what is the difference between goals and strategies? The goals are part of the description of the destination while the strategies describe the way to reach it.
What are objective and goal examples?
When writing my objective statement, I use the ‘what-by-how’ method described by van Eck and Leenhouts in their excellent book “The 1 Page Business Strategy”. The ‘what-by-how’ method divides the objective statement into a ‘what’-part which describes what I aim to achieve and a ‘how’-part which already gives a sneak-preview on how I am going to achieve it. In the objective statement, I already build-in a lead to my strategy! This makes the objective statement clear and actionable. Consider the following simple examples:
- “Go to Berlin by bus”
- “Learn to master the guitar by practicing every day”
- “Drive rapid business growth by launching a new product line”
Goals then are the quantification of these objective statements. Goals are facts and figures that turn objectives into measurable results. I define 1-2 goals each for the ‘what’-part and the ‘how’-part of the objective. Referring to previous examples:
- Reach Berlin-Mitte by 4pm. Pay less than $20 for the ticket. Less than 2 hours journey time.
- Master “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits within 2 years. Practice 1 hour daily.
- Grow 15% CAGR over 3 years. $5MM annual sales from new product line by year 2.
By setting concrete goals for both the ‘what’-part and the ‘how’-part of the objective statement, the objective becomes clear and measurable and you can track that you stay on course.
So does it matter whether objective or strategies come first?
In my experience it does matter whether objective or strategies come first. Strategies describe how I aim to achieve an objective. I would therefore define my objective first and then only after I am clear about my objective and my goals would I define my strategies.
Having said that, the objective is not the very first item I discuss in my strategic planning process. Before looking into the future and developing my objective, I analyze where I am today. I want to be clear about my business’ current situation. What is the purpose of my business? What kind of business am I running? What mission am I on? What success have I had so far? Only when I know where I am today, can I look to the future.
Let’s come back to Stephen Covey. He said, beginning with the end in mind “means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now […] so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.” So knowing where you are starting from is just as important as knowing where you are headed.
So know where you are today, define where you are headed and then choose how you will get there.
A great way to define your strategic plan starting with a clear objective statement is the OGSM methodology. Read on about the OGSM approach to strategy here.
When developing a strategy, always start with the end in mind. Once you define your destination, you know that the steps you take are always in the right direction.
Therefore, first define your objective statement and your goals. Then develop your strategies that help you reach your destination and avoid the 7 deadly sins of business strategy.
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