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Writing Good Work Objectives
Where to Get Them and How to Write Them
© Fred Nickols 2012
In many organizations, people are asked to write work objectives -- for themselves and for others -- as part of their company's performance planning and appraisal process. For some, this is a new experience. For many, it is a difficult one. This article elaborates upon the qualities of good work objectives and the process of writing them. It is concerned with how objectives are derived (i.e., their content) and how they are specified (i.e., their form). This article was written for people who are writing work objectives for the first time and for those who, although they might have done so before, find the task a difficult one. The goal of this article is to help make the task of writing work objectives easier and more productive.
It Isnt Easy
Writing good work objectives is not easy. This is true whether you are writing them for yourself or for someone else. Getting at meaningful content for a work objective requires you to think at length and in depth about the work to be performed. It is unlikely that you will be able to sit down and dash off a set of finished work objectives. Instead, you will have to write them, think them over, rewrite them, then rewrite them again. (Frankly, if you find writing good work objectives an easy task, chances are you know something the rest of us don't and would you please share it?)
It Is Manageable
Although writing good work objectives is not easy, it is a manageable task. The purposes of this paper are to examine the qualities and characteristics of good work objectives and to make the task of writing them easier. Because the form or specification of a work objective is more easily dealt with than its content or derivation, we will tackle the form or structure of a work objective first [see the note below about form and function].
The function served by a work objective is to clearly communicate (a) the nature of the work to be performed and (b) guidelines for determining if its performance is satisfactory. It follows that the form of a well-written work objective should contain at least two components: a verb-object component specifying what is to be accomplished, and a standards component indicating acceptable performance.
On occasion, work is to be accomplished under such unusual circumstances that these, too, are spelled out in the objective. When this is the case, the work objective contains a conditions component. A conditions component is optional. The verb-object and the standards components are more or less mandatory. Without them, the objective isn't an objective at all.
Here is an example of a work objective:
Clearly, this is a work objective for someone with very broad responsibility, perhaps a vice president of sales or marketing.
Let us narrow our focus a bit, say to the scope of work of someone managing a testing program at Educational Testing Service, which is where I was employed when I first wrote this paper. Here is another example:
This is still a pretty broad work objective. Most of us are not responsible for anything this grand. Let us narrow our focus even more, to a possible objective for someone working in a document processing area.
There are people who would spend a lot of time and energy arguing that the phrase "while obeying all safety precautions" is a condition. There are others who would argue that it is a standard. What is the point of such an argument? Absolutely nothing. The objective of a work objective is the clear communication of expected performance. There is little value to be gained from identifying and classifying the components of a given work objective. Do not waste time trying to identify the components of a work objective. And do not waste time trying to construct conditions components if they are not immediately apparent to you.
All three of the preceding objectives are clear, measurable, and time-tied. These are qualities to strive for in work objectives. The three objectives just presented also offer up three additional observations about work objectives. They can be very broad or very narrow in scope, they can address financial or operational matters, and they can address situational or recurring work requirements.
Following are some more sample work objectives. Look them over and then we will review and comment on them.
As you can see from the last example, work objectives can be short and sweet. As you can see from the first two, that is not always the case. Remember, the objective is clarity, which does not necessarily mean brevity.
None of the objectives above sprang forth in finished form. All required thinking and several required extensive rewriting. As written, they are acceptable, but they might still benefit from some careful editing. The third and fourth objectives, for example, place the time-tied portion of the standards component at the beginning of the objective. This serves a useful purpose: it focuses attention on the deadline. Alternate wording for objective three might be as follows:
Here is a work objective that is truly short and sweet:
Clear? I think so. Measurable? Sure is. Time-tied? Obviously. Could it be improved? You bet. One could stipulate a condition such as a cost limitation; for example, "at a total cost not to exceed $20 million." One could also stipulate markets; for example, "with one program targeted at each of the following markets: the home, K-12, school to work, and work to school." But, even the stripped-down version satisfies the two basic criteria for a work objective; there is a verb-object component, and some indication regarding how to tell if the objective has been met.
There are three more points to be covered in this paper. One is the distinction between action and results. A second has to do with who actually writes the objectives. The third deals with derivation, that is, the source of the objectives. Let's tackle the derivation issue next.
Derivation: From Whence Do They Come?
Objectives are derived from a process of reflection and analysis. Some of the more common areas or aspects of the workplace where reflection and analysis will yield objectives include problems, processes, practices and people.
Who Actually Writes Them?
Do We Specify or Do We Solicit Work Objectives?
In this enlightened new age of empowerment, full of self-managed teams and even a self-directing individual or two, many managers and supervisors find themselves on the horns of a dilemma; should they specify work objectives for the people whose performance they must review, or should they solicit objectives from them? There is no easy answer to this question, but it is safe to say that the choice is greatly influenced by the kind of work involved.
Figure 1 - The Mix of Work
Figure 1 illustrates a fact easily confirmed by a moment's reflection: the job of any given employee is a mix of routine and non-routine activities. This means that the contributions sought from employees range from compliance to creativity.
Routine work activities are usually prefigured, that is, they are designed in advance, by others, for the worker to carry out. Routine work activities are frequently repetitive and often documented in the form of a written procedures manual. Assembly line work is the classic example of prefigured work.
Non-routine work activities are almost always configured, that is, they are developed by the worker, typically in response to the requirements of a given situation. Because they represent more or less unique responses, non-routine work activities cannot be prefigured. Nor are they easily documented, except in a very general way. [ One can document the general process of project management, but a particular project defies documentation in advance.]
Although everyones job contains some mix of routine and non-routine work activities, some jobs are almost completely dominated by one or the other. Depending on its mix of routine and non-routine work, a given job can be placed anywhere along the diagonal line in the center of the diagram in Figure 1.
For jobs consisting primarily of routine work activities, the expectation of the worker is generally one of compliance with established procedures. In such cases, supervisors and managers might rely heavily on specifying work objectives.
For jobs consisting chiefly of non-routine work activities, the expectation is contribution toward unit, project, or company goals and objectives. In these cases, supervisors might rely more on soliciting work objectives.
In all cases, discussion and negotiation will be required because, no matter the kind of work being performed, commitment is essential to its proper performance.
Focus On Results
Whether routine or non-routine, recurring or situational, all work may be viewed as a process having a result. Results are the outcomes of activity, the effects of actions taken. Work objectives for both kinds of work should reflect, in measurable terms, the results expected, not just the activity to be performed.
Placing measures on activity is not the same as developing measures of the results of that activity. For example, focusing on keystrokes per minute is a measure of a data entry or word processing system operators activity. A useful measure of results might be the percentage of documents correctly keyed or typed.
For customer service representatives, a work objective might call for maintaining an average call duration of no more than 3.5 minutes (a measure that ties directly to the cost of calls). Another work objective might require customer service representatives to supply 100 percent accurate information as measured by call sampling and monitoring.
One customer service representative (Rep A) produces results like those listed above and maintains an average call length of 3.5 minutes. Another (Rep B) achieves similar results but with an average call length of 4 minutes. Assuming a cost of $1.00 per minute, the two service representatives are maintaining average costs per call of $3.50 and $4.00. If each rep handles 100 calls per day 100 days each year, that is 10,000 calls each. At a 50 cent differential, Rep As results cost the company $5,000 less than Rep Bs. Which rep do you think ought to get the higher rating? Which rep would you keep if you had to let one go? [ Skip ahead to the caveat about measuring work and performance before making up your mind.]
Conceivably, marketing representatives could be measured in terms of the dollar value of new clients. At the same time, the desirability of these new clients might be gauged using qualitative measures of their strategic value to the business.
Managers could be measured on the number of process improvements made, their dollar value, and more qualitative measures such as expansion of the skill base in their units.
A Caveat About Measuring Work and Performance
You get what you measure. Before instituting measures of work and performance, you should think through the consequences of measuring what you contemplate measuring. If you do not, the results you get might be far removed from what you are after. For example, measuring average call length could indeed lead to reduced costs per call. But it can also lead to a situation where customer service representatives inappropriately cut calls short. Generally speaking, some mix of measures is needed to balance the pressures exerted by a single measure.
To get at the results an employee might be expected to produce, it is necessary to give thought to the outcomes or effects sought from the employees work activities.
Consider, for example, a few of the results a customer service representative might produce: questions answered, orders entered, errors corrected, materials shipped, and customers satisfied (perhaps even delighted). A researchers results might be measured in terms of the number, quality, or value of studies conducted. A program directors results might be measured in terms of the performance of the program, financially, operationally, or on both counts.
The attainment of results always consumes resources, either in the form of actual consumption of materials or simple wear and tear on machinery, equipment, and people. The consumption of resources incurs costs. Work objectives might also reflect the cost of the results to be achieved as well as the results themselves. The results sought from operations managers might take the form of reductions in unit costs.
As we saw earlier, the mix of work comes into play as supervisors wrestle with the extent to which work objectives should be specified for employees and the extent to which they should be solicited from employees. It also comes into play in thinking about the extent to which work objectives should focus on activity and the extent to which they should focus on results.
People whose work requires of them that they configure their responses to a given situation should typically have their work objectives expressed in terms of results, not activity. One reason for this is that the response required to produce the desired result can not be specified in advance. Another is that the management of work should always be results-centered. To begin with the task or process is to run the risk of performing work that should not be performed at all. Finally, people whose work requires of them that they figure out what to do can not be managed using an activity-based compliance model.
For people whose work consists primarily of repetitive, prefigured routines, it is possible to specify work objectives in terms of activity; more specifically, in terms of complying with the prefigured routines that define their work. The reason is that the results are a given. If the routine is carried out properly, the result will accrue. However, if attention is not paid to specifying the results as well, then the purpose of the work and its place in the larger context will be unclear. The consequences of this lack of context are well known: lack of commitment, absenteeism, turnover, shoddy work, and morale problems. In general, then, work objectives should always indicate the results expected.
The short-and-sweet sample objective given earlier, "Launch four new testing programs in the coming fiscal year," could be refocused on the results the four new programs are required to produce. For example, one could add words like "each of which will yield a net return of not less than 10% of expenses" or "each of which will yield gross revenue of at least $15 million." This leads to a logical question: If revenue and net are the desired results, why not put them up front? Doing so might yield an objective like this:
Clearly, it could be the case that "launch four new testing programs" is a lower-level objective derived in the course of figuring out how to achieve the $60 million revenue objective.
Temper the admonition to couch objectives in terms of results instead of actions with common sense. It is indeed useful to think things through and make sure you are clear about the results to be achieved. On occasion, however, the result to be realized is the execution of a previously determined course of action. In other words, work objectives sometimes focus on the ends to be achieved, and they sometimes focus on the means to be employed. Ends and means are relative terms. The launch of four new testing programs within a one-year period might be the end sought by a product development chieftain but, for a senior executive, it is the means to new revenues.
The point being made here is that the content of work objectives should focus on the work to be performed. Work is a process and it has a result. If the work is best expressed in terms of results, fine; if it is best expressed in terms of the process to be carried out, that is fine, too. Do not fall victim to dogmatic dictates.
A Process for Writing Work Objectives
This page last updated on June 27, 2015