During this year’s Association for Talent Development (ATD) International Conference and Expo, I had the opportunity to attend a pre-conference workshop on improving human performance. One of the big takeaways from the workshop was the difference between goals, objectives, and outcomes. I know how easy it is to use these terms interchangeably.
And at first glance, there might not be anything wrong with using the words as synonyms. They’re all focused on achievement, right? Not a big deal. But then, maybe it is important to differentiate them. Here are the definitions of each with an example:
Goals are an observable and measurable end result having one or more objectives to be achieved. Goals are typically broad in scope. For example, a goal might be for an organization to “increase profits”. Or an individual might have a goal to “become certified”.
Objectives are a specific result you’re trying to achieve within a time frame and with available resources. They’re considered more specific and easier to measure than a goal. Think of them as the steps you will take to achieve the goal. Using the examples above, a company’s objective might be to “Call all existing customers in Q3 with a special promotion to increase sales.”. For an individual, the objective might be to “Research all relevant HR certifications and register for the exam before the end of the year.”
Outcomes are the measurement and evaluation of an activity’s results against their intended or projected results. Outcomes are what you hope to achieve when you accomplish the goal. Again, using the above examples, the organization’s outcome might be to “increase profit by 50 percent over last quarter”. That’s what the company is trying to do. For an individual, the outcome could be “get a new job” or “get a pay increase” as a result of earning a certification.
It seems to me that goals become more relevant if the organization is focused on outcomes first. We spend a lot of time talking with employees about goals. And that’s good. But do we spend time talking with employees about outcomes? Do employees know how their goals not only align with the organization’s goals BUT also with business outcomes?
The key principle of employee engagement is that employees need to see the how their work has value. Is the value we’re talking about the company’s outcomes? Something to consider.
One of the reasons I’m bringing this up is because for many organizations this is the time of year when we start conversations about 2019 goals and objectives. We start thinking about budgets. That includes talent management. What are the business outcomes for HR? And how are they using those outcomes to create goals?
I don’t know that I can completely answer these questions for your organization. But I do believe the questions are worth asking. Today’s talent landscape is very competitive and that means HR departments will be asked to deliver at higher levels. The way to create a high performing HR function is by focusing on business outcomes.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby at the Association for Talent Development Conference in Orlando, FL26