You make decisions every day. You decide what clothes to wear, what food to eat, and what actions to take. Some decisions are trivial and some are life-changing. And (hopefully) out in front, leading this relentless procession of decisions are your objectives. I say hopefully because you’re more likely to move in the “direction” you’re trying to go (improve on your objective) when you are consciously thinking about where you want to go. As Yogi Berra said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”
But even when you know how important they are to your decision making process it can be really hard to think of objectives. It’s difficult for many reasons, including creative energy, problem complexity, and time constraints, but one important reason is that the list of objectives you specify for a specific situation is never going to be the “one and only,” correct specification of objectives. That’s because, in order to improve on your high-level objective (for example, improve customer service), which is too broad and vague for operational purposes, you have to create sub-objectives that you can define and measure more precisely (for example, improve convenience or improve safety). Even these two sub-objectives are not specific enough. You would need to further refine them into sub-objectives, like the number of days until the product is delivered and the number of days without an accident, that are more precise and measurable. As you can see, the problem with this procedure is that there is no obvious point at which to stop specifying sub-objectives. An additional complication is that you can create different hierarchies of objectives for one specific situation simply by re-defining the sub-objectives or choosing to measure the sub-objectives in different ways. Using this procedure effectively is an art. You need to be pragmatic and use your judgment to decide when to stop specifying sub-objectives and how to define and measure them.
While specifying objectives is in large part a creative process, there are many techniques you can use to generate objectives for a specific situation. For example, when considering an objective at a given level in the hierarchy, ask yourself “What do I really mean by this objective?” If your high-level objective is ‘improve customer service,’ then ask yourself what you really mean by improve customer service. Perhaps when you think about this phrase you think ‘improve convenience’ or ‘improve safety’. Three additional techniques include examining the relevant literature to see what objectives others have already identified, building a model of the situation to identify relevant input and output variables, and carefully observing people involved in the situation to hear what they talk about and to learn how they make and rationalize their decisions. By using one of these techniques, or answering the question “What do I really mean by this objective?” at each level in the hierarchy, you will be able to efficiently generate a suitable hierarchy of objectives. While specifying objectives can be challenging because it requires you to be creative and use your judgment, it can also be very enjoyable because it’s when you are free to explore your thoughts on a particular issue, use your imagination, and be creative. Remember, as Mary Lou Cook says, “Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun.”