A few days ago I was chatting with a friend about a new company initiative she’s going to be working on. The new initiative is an important strategic maneuver for the company. If it is designed and implemented well, the company will be well-positioned to compete in the new market. However, if it isn’t designed or implemented well, it will significantly drain the company’s limited management and financial resources and likely weaken the company’s competitive edge.
As our conversation continued, one important problem with the new initiative became apparent. Based on available information, it appears the overall strategy and objectives for the new initiative aren’t well thought out. This is an important problem for several reasons – it makes it difficult for workers to know what tasks need to be done to advance the initiative, makes it difficult for managers to track and guide progress on all of the project’s phases, and impedes clear communication.
Having identified the problem with the current state of the initiative, namely, that management has not clearly defined what they want to achieve with the initiative, we began discussing potential solutions. The first thing we wanted to do was brainstorm the factors we thought were important to the company with respect to the initiative; however, it became clear right away that first we needed to define some terminology.
The problem was that we were using different words to describe the ideas we wanted to discuss. One minute we were talking about the company’s values, another minute we were talking about the company’s objectives, and the next minute we were talking about the company’s goals. We needed to agree on the definitions of the terms we were using. After spending some time discussing possible definitions, we agreed on the following definitions:
- Values are the areas of concern, considerations, or matters you think are significant enough to be taken into account when evaluating alternatives. For example, values for the company considering alternative ways of rolling out the initiative may be ease of implementation, company image, and profit.
- Objectives augment values by specifying the preferred direction of movement. Thus, the company considering alternative ways of rolling out the initiative would find an alternative that is easier to implement more desirable.
- Goals are thresholds of achievement with respect to values and objectives that are either achieved or not by an alternative that’s being evaluated. For example, the company might have a goal of implementing the initiative within eight weeks. For a given alternative, this goal may or may not be achievable.
- Finally, underlying each of these terms is the idea of a measure, a measuring scale for the degree of attainment of an objective. For example, the company may use “annual profit in dollars” as the measure for the objective of increasing profit.
By thinking carefully about these terms, and agreeing on their definitions, we developed a common vocabulary we could use to communicate clearly with one another. Having defined the terminology, we brainstormed the company’s values and objectives with respect to the initiative and even defined the measures we would use to gauge the degree of attainment of the objectives.
From start to finish, the whole conversation didn’t take more than an hour, but by the end we had a shared understanding of the values and objectives the company should try to achieve with the initiative, a shared understanding of how we would measure degrees of attainment of the objectives, and significant insight into how we would evaluate the alternative ways of rolling out the initiative. Not bad for an hour-long conversation.
This structuring process and terminology is applicable to any situation in which you want to evaluate alternatives based on multiple values and objectives. By specifying the values you want to use to evaluate your alternatives and defining the objectives and measures you’ll use to judge the degree of attainment of your objectives, you’ll reap the significant benefits of thoroughly understanding your decision situation, being able to articulate a clear rationale for your decision, and being able to identify the alternative that, according to your values and objectives, is the most valuable to you.