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Advice for beginners in OKR. Words are important: objectives or goals?

goals or objectives

MyBig 5 is a performance management software that improves employee engagement. Now there’s a mouthful. What does that mean? Can’t we use other words to describe this? What about objectives versus goals?

The 1982 hit “words don’t come easy” by F.R. David comes to mind when I think about the jargon in our field. Take the term “performance management” for example. In New Zealand, “performance management” is all too often a pejorative, suggesting that an employee has one foot out of the door due to poor results. Finding synonyms for “performance management”, however, is not easy.

About objectives

On the other hand of the vocabulary spectrum, there are concepts that seem to have too many options in the thesaurus. Take the word “objective”. When you search for this word in the dictionary, you will find “something that one’s efforts or actions are intended to attain or accomplish; ; purpose, goal, target”. There is no notion of timeframe in this definition. It really depends on who you talk to, whether an objective is long term or short term, and whether that long term is a quarter, a year, or a few years.

It appears that the framework of OKR (Objectives and Key Results) has become (or at least is becoming) the de facto standard for performance management in companies. Consequently, we should only be using the word “objective” when we are talking about the mid to long term company goals. So which word do we use for short term, say, weekly, goals?

More words

The dictionary doesn’t really help, as it defines the word “goal” as “the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result”. There is again no connotation of time in this definition. The OKR framework is pretty clear that a “Key Result” is different from a goal (which the dictionary defines as the synonym of an objective). Are you confused yet?

“So how about we use the word “task” for weekly goals?”, you may ask. A task is “a piece of work to be done or undertaken”. But when you ask ten people to describe their feeling about the word “task” versus the word “goal”, an overwhelming majority will say that they feel more positive about the word “goal” than the word “task”. A goal is something you want to do, a task is something that you have to do (and potentially someone else wants you to do).

So… in our infinite wisdom, the Big 5 team decided to stick with the following rules: if we are talking about company and department/division goals, we use the word “objectives” and we follow the OKR framework. If we think about weekly goals, we stick with the word “goal”. We firmly believe that those 5 things you aim to achieve during a given week, must be things that you really want to do, you choose to do. We want the word to reflect the positive feeling associated with that free will. Hence, the word “goal” and not “task”.

Words are important, after all, even when they don’t come easy.

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