process for objectives: 1 project sponsor gives direction [arrow to]; 2 project manager defines objectives [arrow to]; 3 PM and team shape and define objectives [arrow to 2 and 1]. Gain sign up [along arrow to 1]

Setting project objectives

Setting objectives is not an easy task and what can appear on the surface as an ‘obvious’ objective may not be so in reality.

Agreeing objectives can be one of the most important tasks you will undertake as a project manager. Occasionally, the project sponsor, your guide and supporter in the project, will hand down a full set of project objectives. More commonly, however, the project sponsor will provide a broad direction, or a general aim, from which the project manager produces more tightly defined objectives.

Clarity of objectives is not only important in identifying exactly what is to be done but it also allows you to:

  • establish whether or not you have achieved the objectives
  • have a framework for the final evaluation
  • have information for monitoring the project
  • structure the project so that it is effectively controlled and managed
  • fit the project around other organisational activities.

Objectives define what a project is trying to achieve, the steps by which the aim will be achieved and how success will be recognised. The SMART principle is often applied to objectives. They should be:

  1. Specific – clearly defined with completion criteria
  2. Measurable – so you will know when they have been achieved
  3. Achievable – within the current environment and with the skills that are available
  4. Realistic – not trying to achieve the impossible
  5. Timebound – limited by a delivery date based on real need.

For instance, in setting up a company event, saying that an objective is to save on costs would not make it a SMART objective. A SMART objective would be to reduce the expenses by 10% in comparison with the previous year by saving on venue and catering costs.

Criteria Example
Specific Savings are related to the venue and catering service
Measurable It targets 10% of the costs
Achievable It is possible thanks to experience developed by the team during the previous year
Realistic The amount of saving does not compromise achieving good results
Timebound Costs can be constantly monitored during the project and reviewed at the end of the event

As you define the scope of the project through the aims, objectives and stakeholder requirements, it may become clear that some of the dimensions may be stretched – or are outright unachievable. In such cases it is important to adopt some means of prioritising them. Here are some simple tools to do this. Your own organisation may utilise others.

High, medium, low

This simple method relies on assigning these relative priorities – high, medium, low – to individual objectives. Difficulties can occur when individuals use different assessments of each term, but a discussion that involves all parties together can help to reduce the likelihood of this happening.

Levels Examples
High Reduce the expenses by 10% in comparison with the previous year by saving on venue and catering costs
Medium Invite a high-profile keynote speaker (famous coach or manager)
Low Distribute gadgets at the end of the company event


This technique is used most commonly in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector. It requires assessment against the MoSCoW definitions:

Criteria Example
Must have – essential to the success of the project Have at least 20% of the members from each company unit
Should have if at all possible Invite a high-profile keynote speaker (famous coach or manager)
Could have if this does not affect overall delivery Organise a game with cross-unit teams
Would like but won’t have this time Have fireworks at the end of the event

The MoSCoW approach is useful in identifying the critical factors for the success of a project. However, it can cause issues when somebody becomes determined that something must be included at all costs and grades all their requirements as ‘must have’ to ensure they are included. In order to successfully use this approach, there should be an overall agreement on project objectives and their priority.

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This article is from the free online course:

Business Fundamentals: Project Management

The Open University