Goals are Achieved, Andrew Stein, SteinVoxLike the difference between practicing the piano and playing in a recital in Carnegie Hall, in the real world, Goals are Achieved, Projects Just End. Knowing the difference is critical to successfully navigating your own path.

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of speaking with a group of MSTM students at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. MSTM is the Masters of Science in Technology Management degree program.

The group came from many disciplines: marketing and finance to engineering and computer science. I asked the class how they were going to apply their MSTM degree when they entered the workforce. Some said “manage technology projects.” No one said “achieve company goals.”

Goals Are Achieved, Projects Just End

We discussed the difference between goals and projects, and why one is more important than the other. I made the clarifying statement that Goals are Achieved, Projects Just End.

In the context of giving the students something tangible to apply that could accelerate their success, I shared the following differentiating definitions.

Goals are broad strategic measurable objectives that deliver value to stakeholders through a visible outcome. Goals are achieved by collaboratively completing many projects within and across organizational functions. Goals have milestones along a timeframe and typically do not change when strategy pivots.

Projects are groups of scheduled activities that produce an associated deliverable or specific result. Projects collectively complement other projects in achieving a broader goal. Project activities often discover opportunities to optimize or eliminate other projects forcing a strategy pivot.

While working on projects, don’t lose sight of the broader goal. And that not all projects need to finish to completion in order to achieve the broader goal. When a project becomes unnecessary to achieve the goal – be the first to identify it, and optimize it out of the schedule. Don’t hold onto a project just to “complete” it for the wrong reason.


For example, you may have a goal to learn to play the piano in a year. Supporting the achievement of that goal would be to have a daily project to practice for an hour. To achieve that goal, another set of projects you initially determine necessary is to perform a monthly recital. One month, you may find you are working on a piece of music that takes two months to learn and master. So, you don’t complete the “project” to have a recital that month. In the context of the broader goal “learn to play the piano in a year,” one of the projects, “the monthly recital” just ended.  Yet, you practiced every day your goal is achieved at the end of the year visible by the outcome of your final recital.

Examples of goals that a CEO may set for a company might be:

  1. Develop a new product or enter a new market (e.g., develop a new smart phone or tablet computer)
  2. Improve customer service levels (e.g., ensure delivery and service levels meets customer expectations)
  3. Increase profitability (e.g., increasing profit margins by selling more, reducing costs or raising prices)

Each of these goals requires a number of projects (and perhaps even subprojects) to be completed in order to achieve the broader goal that meets stakeholder expectations. Initially an organization may break the goal down into a large set of projects that ultimately refine down to a smaller set of projects to optimally achieve the goal.

Developing a new product may mean inventing new technology and innovation that creates a whole new product category. Or, it may mean acquiring a product or technology from another company, and commercializing it. This would involve projects in the corporate legal and finance groups (for an acquisition), or it might involve marketing, engineering, quality, and sales to if the product is developed in-house.

Improving customer service may mean changing process, and adding technology for customer relationship management. It may also require adding people to handle direct customer calls. This would involve projects in operations, information technology and human resources to achieve the broader goal.

Increasing profitability may mean changing suppliers to reduce costs. It may mean raising prices and communicating that to the market. It may mean adding new sales channels to reach new customers. This would involve projects in operations, marketing and sales to achieve the broader goal.

Emotional Attachment

Projects are projects and one should not to become emotionally attached to competing them. Instead be emotionally attached to the goal. Be measured on achieving the goal. Communicate early to share with your manager how your daily project work is driving toward the ultimate goal. Especially communicate when you find a way to short-cut or eliminate a project that becomes superfluous along the way. Not all projects must be completed.

Ending a project before it is finished when it becomes unnecessary is not failure, it is prudent. Time and resources saved can be reapplied to other necessary projects.

What examples of goals achieved, where projects were not all completed, do you have? Have you seen emotional attachment to a project to the detriment of the goal? Tell your story in a comment.

Image credits:
Hands on Piano:
seriousbri via photopincc
Recital on stage: pennstatelive via photopincc

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