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Establishing and Maintaining Clear Goals

written by: Michele McDonough • edited by: Jean Scheid • updated: 4/24/2013

No matter how big or small the project you are working on, it's important to establish clear goals and expectations for all parties involved. How do you ensure that everyone completely understands these goals? Open communication is the real key.

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    The Goal-Setting Process

    When managing projects, or anything else that involves people, establishing clear goals is generally the primary objective. However, it's not uncommon for problems with meeting goals to arise for a variety of reasons:

    • The goals, as stated or communicated, may be unclear. This could cause one party to interpret those goals quite differently from another.
    • The reasons or motivation behind the goals is unknown or unclear. If a project team member doesn't understand why a goal exists, that goal may not seem important enough to worry about.
    • A goal may be perceived as unfair or unrealistic to the team member. Often, people will just dismiss goals they deem as "unfair," sometimes without even realizing they are doing so. How often have you heard, "There's no way I'll be able to meet that goal, so why should I even bother trying?"
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    Communication of Goals

    Establishing Clear Goals Despite some of the conversations that you'll hear around the water cooler, goals generally exist for a reason. Sure, there may be a few project managers out there that delight in spreading stress and discontent, but that's definitely the exception and not the rule. When someone doesn't understand why a certain goal exists, that's usually due to miscommunication in some form or another.

    When attempts are made to explain and establish clear goals, team members will often give some indication that those goals are understood even if they aren't. But, how can you make sure that people really understand the goals and aren't just nodding and smiling?

    To begin, whenever possible, make goal-setting a joint effort between the manager and team member. Instead of coming up with a list of goals, passing around the list, and declaring it to be law, let the person responsible for meeting the goals be part of establishing clear goals. In fact, you may even want to start the goal-setting process by asking the team member what he or she thinks fair and reasonable goals would be. Not only does this allow the person to be involved in the decision-making process, but it also opens up the floor for discussion on points why each goal is important and needs to be met.

    For large projects, sometimes these one-on-one meetings aren't feasible. In these instances, you can supply a list of overall project goals to the entire team and request feedback on what needs to happen from each division of the team to realize these goals. This strategy, which uses elements of the backward goal-setting philosophy, allows individuals to have input concerning goals directly related to them as well as those relating to peers in other divisions. So, instead of using your project manager position as a means to assign goals to everyone, you can use it to facilitate discussions and compromises of what needs to be accomplished in the project.

    Develop a communication plan and have regular meetings to discuss the progress being made for each goal. If there are obstacles, including human obstacles, ask for input on how those obstacles can be overcome. When appropriate, be open to revising existing goals, but be firm enough to communicate the effect these revisions will have on the overall project.

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    Improving Goal Buy-In

    Establishing clear goals requires input from all concerned parties; once established, the goal-buy will be easier for all parties. This makes it more likely for people to strive to meet these goals, but it creates another positive aspect as well. When people understand the reasoning behind a certain goal, they are more likely to "buy in" to that goal – perhaps even to the point of pushing themselves harder to meet or exceed the goal. At the very least, they'll have a better feeling of why the goal exists in the first place.

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