Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
January 04, 2022 · 9 min read

A 3-Step Framework for Writing Better Project Objectives

A 3-Step Framework for Writing Better Project Objectives

Nothing ensures the failure of a project faster than misunderstanding the problem you’re trying to solve. Yet too often, product leaders jump from broad goals to specific project objectives without really knowing what they’re trying to achieve. It’s the project management equivalent of putting the cart before the horse.

According to CB Insights, the number one reason most companies fail is a lack of market need. They found a problem area. But they didn’t take the time to solve the right problem.

So what’s the solution? There’s a famous quote from Albert Einstein that says:

”If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

In Einstein’s mind, the quality of your solution is less about a Eureka-moment insight and more about your ability to understand your problem deeply.

Jump to a section:

Many seasoned project managers take writing project objectives for granted. But if you don’t solve the right problem, it doesn’t matter that you’ve written a perfect, actionable set of objectives. You’ll be setting your project up for failure from the start.

This guide will cover how to write better project objectives and solve real, impactful problems.

What are project objectives? Objectives vs. goals, milestones, and OKRs

Project objectives are the desired results of a project. Objectives need to be specific, measurable, time-bound, and above all else, attainable. Project objectives can be specific deliverables and assets (like a finished app or a redesigned homepage) or something slightly more intangible (like increasing team productivity).

That definition might make objectives sound a lot like goals. However, there are differences that make project objectives both unique and indispensable to your planning process.

While a project goal can be high-level and offer multiple paths to success, project objectives are detailed and specific. Here’s an example to show you the difference:

There are similar nuances between project objectives and milestones (which are a set of tasks that mark progress within your project timeline) and OKRs (larger goals that guide your team or company for a quarter or a year).

Instead, effective project objectives describe what you’re going to build to hit your most immediate goals, how you’ll measure success, and when you should complete those tasks.

Think of it like this: Your goals are a map, while your objectives are the step-by-step directions that guide you to your destination. But to get that level of detail, you need to define proper objectives. This is where most project managers suggest following the SMART framework.

The SMART framework describes the ideal characteristics of project objectives as:

We write more about the SMART goal-setting system in our Guide to Setting Goals. But let’s break down that first example again to show how it’s a SMART objective:

“Add five (measurable) new team invitation touchpoints (relevant) to the onboarding campaign (specific) within the next sprint cycle (time-bound and achievable).”

A project objective like this not only tells you if you’re on the right track but gives you measurable success metrics to know when you’re done.

Nothing ensures the failure of a project faster than misunderstanding the problem you’re trying to solve.

How (and where) do project objectives fit into your overall strategy?

Understanding how to write effective project objectives is a great skill to have. But what separates good project managers from great product leaders is knowing which objectives will best get you closer to your ultimate goals.

Because in the end, every project, task, and issue should connect to your company’s overall strategy and vision. (We know this isn’t always the case, but let’s stay in product utopia for a little while!)
Think of the following chain as a spectrum from strategic to tactical thinking:
Chain of Vision, Strategy, Goals, Objectives and Tasks
At one end, you have a high-level vision and a lofty goal. On the other, you have the work and decisions your team deals with every day.

Objectives are the most tactical tools you have. However, trivializing the leap from goals to objectives is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.

Let’s go back to our initial project objective example for a second to show you what we mean:

At first glance, this objective makes sense. However, why is updating onboarding the best way to solve your problem (i.e., new users aren’t signing up their team.)

What if a better option would be to scrap your current onboarding and call users instead? Or maybe you’re not doing enough marketing upfront to show the benefits of adding team members to your account?

Writing project objectives isn’t just about taking whatever goal has been thrown at you and coming up with a few actionable ways to measure success. Instead, understanding the Problem shows you the best way to approach your goal.
You can’t choose the right objectives without first understanding the problem, so you’re new chain will look like this:
Chain of Vision, Strategy, Goals, PROBLEMS, Objectives and Tasks

As American inventor, Charles Kettering famously wrote:

“A problem well-framed is a problem half-solved.”

A well-framed problem will help you choose the objectives that will significantly impact user behavior. Not the goal.

How to find the right problem and write better project objectives in 3 steps

Going deep into which problem to solve isn’t always easy. However, with a few small steps, you can quickly and clearly define a problem statement that will guide your objectives, goals, and decisions.

1. Nail your problem statement

If you’ve already got a goal to work towards, then you’ve effectively found an opportunity to pursue. Through data, user interviews, and experience, you believe that if you build a feature or change a user’s behavior, it’ll help you reach your product vision.

With your project or goal in mind, former PM Lead at Airbnb, Lenny Rachitsky, suggests answering a few questions to crystalize the problem:

Even if you keep your answers to a single page, it can still feel like too much to condense into a usable format. Another way to present your problem statement is using the User, Need, Insight framework:

[User… (descriptive)] needs [need … (verb)] because [insight… (compelling).]

Here’s what that might look like for a team targeting startups who are launching new products to market:

User Need Insight
A project manager at a mid-sized company (20–100 employees) Organize go-to-market materials and prepare for a new feature launch The user wants to try out new project management software themselves before inviting their team to another tool. They already use several collaboration tools. However, they currently don’t have an easy solution for cross-team collaboration. The user needs to find a tool that won’t disrupt their current workflows too much.

Finally, if you’re still having trouble nailing your problem statement, try one of these tips:

2. Align the opportunity with stakeholders and your team

Now that you clearly understand your problem (and have a problem statement), it’s time to get everyone else involved and on the same page.

A problem statement will guide the project objectives you define, which is how your project stakeholders will measure your success. You want to make sure you’re all on the same page early on to avoid scope creep or missed expectations later on.

It’s also easier to share a problem statement with stakeholders and other team members as they require much less context than a specific objective. Finally, it’s a chance to make sure your problem aligns with your current business goals.

Feedback is a tricky beast to tame. Everyone wants it differently, yet few people are specific about what kind of feedback they’re after (especially when speaking with leadership).

One way to frame your feedback sessions is to use the ‘W Framework’ created by the teams at Airbnb and Eventbrite. Essentially, the W Framework is a way to visualize the flow of information between leadership and your team as you plan features, projects, or problems.

W Framework to visualize the flow of information
Source: firstround.com

Here’s how the W Framework works in practice:

  1. Leadership provides context to teams about strategy and vision. This is where you get your goals and start to uncover the problem space.
  2. Teams take that information, define the problem statement, and create a plan (like a lean PRD). You might share multiple ‘solutions’ in this doc to get feedback on what seems most important.
  3. Leadership takes the plan and problem statement, checks it against larger company goals or other projects competing for resources, and gives feedback.
  4. Finally, your team adapts to any changes and moves forward.

What’s great about a workflow like the W Framework is that it clarifies who is responsible for what and when. Instead of uncertainty or confusion, you know exactly when to share your problem and how to get official buy-in. It’s also a great tool to avoid teams (or leadership) working in a silo!

A tool like Planio is great for tracking feedback and keeping the W Framework moving.

Planio is a central location for tracking and running projects, storing issues and tasks, and collaborating with your entire company.

Each Planio task includes key information on your problem statement or objectives like a description, deadline, who’s responsible, and any relevant files or documents. You can link issues or create parent issues to ensure everyone working on them has the relevant context.

Project Problem Planio Issue with subtasks

And when it’s time to get feedback, all you need to do is update the status and assignee of the issue, and they’ll be notified (along with anyone else who has been added as a ‘watcher’).

3. Set project objectives that keep you coming back to the problem

Now it’s time to bring it all back and turn those agreed-upon problems and opportunities into concrete project objectives.

Set project objectives that keep you coming back to the problem

Remember that project opportunities need to be SMART–specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. By sharing your problem early and getting alignment, you’ve already ensured it’s relevant. The rest is up to you.

Using your other project documents that define your budget, timeline, scope, and quality–like your SOW, PRD, or project proposal–write short project objective statements. These statements don’t need to capture all of the context you’ve developed. Instead, keep them to one or two sentences and link out to relevant documents, files, or issues.

Finally, look over your list of project objectives and do a final gut check. Do they align with the problem you spent so long deciding on?

As former PM Lead at Airbnb, Lenny Rachitsky writes:

“We often start with great intentions and alignment, but when it counts most—when the work is actually being done—we often don’t hold on to the problem we set out to solve.”

As you go through the work, keep returning to the problem statement. Is what you delivered during a sprint retrospective aligned with the problem statement? If not, what happened?

Making sure your daily work is aligned with your biggest problems isn’t just good for business, it’s also great for team motivation. Studies show that teams who understand how their work is impacting larger company goals are up to 2X as motivated!

Trivializing the leap from project goals to project objectives is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.

5 project objective examples (and why they work)

Project objectives can be a simple tool for aligning your team and properly measuring success. However, if you take them for granted, they can add more confusion than clarity.

While we’ve covered how to write and define better project objectives, sometimes the easiest way to understand what works is to see them in action.

Here, we’ve put together a collection of project objective examples for some of the most common problem areas you’ll face.

Problem Area Bad Project Objective Better Project Objective
Personal growth Finish more projects on budget Over the next three projects, I will be more involved in the estimation process, hold weekly update meetings, and aim to complete them within +/- 5% of the original estimate.
User onboarding Get more users to complete onboarding Increase new user onboarding completion by 25% by creating a personalized, guided onboarding tour that will launch by Q2.
Site accessibility Make the site more accessible Update all current marketing sites to WCAG 2.2 standards and thoroughly test before deploying at the end of Q1.
User experience Make it easier to find our top resources Update navigation design by the end of Q3 design sprint to include resources in the main navigation with the goal of reducing the number of clicks it takes users to reach our resources page from anywhere on the site to just one and increase time on page by 30 seconds.
Growth Launch new marketing site Create new marketing design assets and copy focusing on our two main user personas and the latest case studies. Launch updated site by the end of Q2.

Make great project objectives your objective

Great project managers make sure their team knows their work matters. Few tools will help you with that on a day-to-day basis than effective project objectives.

When you work with your team to develop the problem statement, actively get stakeholder buy-in, and then translate problems into effective and SMART project objectives, everyone knows what they’re working on, how you’ll measure success, and why it matters.