Decision Theory for Planners#115 Goals & Objectives – there is a difference

A properly structured series of goals, objectives and targets can and should achieve five things, it is important to clarify these as confusion over these concepts in rife in planning;

1)      Above all act as a framework for managing change and responding to the challenges that a place/organization faces – there is much to learn then from some simple concepts of management theory;

2)       Act as a focus in forward planning  on whether actions take you towards or goal or away from it; and solely focusing activity on removing constraints on achieving goals – this is a key insight from operations research and time management;

3)      Act as a framework for making rational decisions against multiple criteria on a common basis, and prioritizing goals and actions – this is an insight from decision theory;

4)      Act as a means as identifying spatial conflicts between land uses that meet different goals and how to rationally resolve spatial conflicts between land uses – this is a relatively recent concept from GIS thinking and its application to planning policy;

5)      Act as a metric for the evaluation of different policy options against some preset criteria – such as sustainability appraisal/integrated appraisal etc.

Each of these approaches are closely interrelated and have greatly influenced each other.  Taken together they can be used to create powerful, insightful, effective planning documents and processes.

Goals as a Management Tool

Goals as a planning tool will not be effective unless placed within a management context through which the ‘plan’ will be delivered.

A goal in this sense is a description of an end state that an organization wishes to achieve.  The management literature tends to use goals and objectives as interchangeable terms, but the full benefits of a structured approach towards goal setting is only achieved if a hierarchical approach is taken distinguishing between goals, objectives and policies (this is mandated in some jurisdictions).

Goals in this sense are the high level and short statement setting out where a place/organization wants to be after a period of time.

Objectives are the specific statements setting out measures to achieve a goal.

A target is a metricated objective, or a metric for an objective,  designed as a tool of performance management.

Example:  Goal:  Diversify the economy reducing reliance on oil and gas exports; Objectives in support of that goal:  Provide sufficient land for light industries/logistics for which Bahrain has a competitive exports advantage,  Allow for the planned expansion of existing heavy industries where there is a sustainability case for these to be located in Bahrain, etc. etc.

Notes:  These are designed to illustrate the point rather than being suggested goals or objectives.

Goals and objectives should begin with a verb.  This improves clarity of intent, implies action, and establishes a rhythm of ideas that enhances understanding. (Carr and Zwick).

The setting of goals and objectives is an iterative process, in particular at the early stages of a project up to and beyond the point at which tentative options are formulated.

From my experience 15-20 objectives is about the right number.  Beyond this paperwork and monitoring becomes onerous.

 The importance of Management by Objectives

The concepts that management should be about achieving the objectives of an organisation (Druker) and that objectives should be SMART[1] (Locke).  What is less well known is the origin in thinking about how people in an organization respond to objectives, and how organizations need to set goals to respond to changes in their environment.

Five Principles of Goal Setting (Locke and Latham)[2]

To motivate, goals must have:

  1. Clarity – Clear goals are measurable and unambiguous
  2. Challenge – People are often motivated by achievement, and they’ll judge a goal based on the significance of the anticipated accomplishment
  3. Commitment – Stakeholders are more likely to “buy into” a goal if they feel they were part of creating that goal
  4. Feedback – Feedback from stakeholders provides opportunities to clarify expectations, adjust goal difficulty, and gain recognition
  5. Appropriate for Task Complexity – For complex goals give the person sufficient time to meet the goal or improve performance and provide enough time for the person to practice or learn what is expected and required for success.

Backward Goal-setting

Or backward design, is used quite often in education and project management. The idea is to start with your ultimate objective, your end goal, and then work backward from there to develop your plan. By starting at the end and looking back, you can mentally prepare yourself for success, map out the specific milestones you need to reach, and identify where in your plan you have to be particularly energetic or creative to achieve the desired results.

This is important where actions must follow a sequence, e.g. construct a road to open up a landlocked development area, or where (as is often the case in planning) achievement of a goal requires delivery of counter-intuitive prior actions.

Competitiveness Strategy & The Challenge-Response Framework (Michael E. Porter[3] and Toynbee)

As set out by the highly influential work of Porter Competitiveness Strategy involves:

  • Performing a situation analysis, self-evaluation and competitor analysis: both internal and external; both micro and macro.
  • Concurrent with this assessment, objectives are set. These objectives should be parallel to a time-line; some are in the short-term and others on the long-term. This involves crafting vision statements (long term view of a possible future), mission statements (the role that the organization gives itself in society), overall corporate objectives (both financial and strategic) etc.
  • These objectives should, in the light of the situation analysis, suggest a strategic plan. The plan provides the details of how to achieve these objectives.

This work has primarily concerned corporations, although it has been influential in framing ‘business growth strategies’ that have been used by many municipalities internationally in determining priorities for growth of their private sectors.

This framework, primarily concerned with cost and competitive advantage, requires  adjustment when adapted to the public sector management of place, when factors more than primarily cost must come into play (although Porter does recommend a balanced score card approach) and the importance of civic responsibility and community leadership must be recognised.   I have found very effective, when working with political leadership, the ‘challenge-response’ framework originally formulated by the Historian Albert Toynbee, to be an effective substitute:

  • Cities and civilizations arise by the response of creative individuals to challenges presented by situations of special difficulty created by the external environment.
  • Progress consists in meeting difficulties by responding in creative ways;
  • The breakdown of society occurs when creative individuals fail to lead through the exercise of creative power, resulting in withdrawal of the allegiance of the majority and a subsequent loss of social unity.

Using this framework one can analyse the special challenges facing a place, with goals being those creative responses to these challenges.

As an example here is the most extreme example I could think of:

Maldives – Challenge – sea level rise will drown the country within 100 years.  Potential responses, persuade other countries to adopt carbon reduction targets of over 80%, or create new areas of reclaimed land and move population, or move population to an area purchased from another country (the ‘uganda’ solution[4]), or become a virtual country of refugees (like Palestine).  Not all challenges might have an achievable or desirable response!


[1] Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time Bound.

[2] “A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance.” Prentice-Hall (19 Dec 1989)

[3] Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors 1998.

[4] Named after the early british suggestion of resolving the Palestine question by creating a jewish homeland in Uganda.

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